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A devastatingly truthful novel about the reality of a sexual affair

David Szalay was born in Canada but has been quite rightly described as a ‘very English novelist.’ In Spring, his third novel, he writes with humour and searing honesty about a relationship set in London one rainy spring. What makes this novel great is Szalay’s microscopic examination of the exquisite possibility of love versus the far more likely possibility of deep despair when this love isn’t reciprocated.

James and Katherine meet at a wedding in London in 2006. James is a thirty-something failed entrepreneur with a varied past now living alone in a tiny, depressing flat in Bloomsbury. Katherine is separated from her paparazzo husband and working in a dull job as a receptionist in a luxury hotel. They exchange numbers and meet the following week, but from then on nothing much goes to plan. Their struggles to free themselves from their multi-layered pasts are pithily portrayed, as is the ambiguity of the relationship they find themselves in.

Szalay writes with elegant insight into the frustrating, indecisive and chaotic inequalities of love. I found James’s passivity and inability to walk away from the annoying, commitment-phobic Katherine painfully real and believable. His phone calls to her are cringe-making and familiar. The sense of despair and disappointment he feels has surely been experienced by most of us. But then Katherine can’t seem to stop herself having sex with James. She says yes when she means no. Szalay’s characters are a mass of complicated contradictions that he expertly lays bare.

London, in all its squalor and beauty, is brilliantly portrayed, as are the Home Counties race tracks and a rather bleak mini-break journey up north. I loved the descriptions of James’s flat, with its ‘dust-bleared fanlights, massed doorbells’ and its bathroom, ‘an odd stooping place, under someone else’s stairs, the frigid London morning sliding in through a lint-furred vent.’ Szalay makes many references to the ‘London light’ of the rain-filled London spring he uses as a backdrop. I felt I could smell the wet pavements and taste the ‘Sunday-night atmosphere’ of the Islington streets.

Spring is full of fresh, original writing and will have you laughing out loud in places and cringing in others. It’s the best novel I’ve read about modern, urban relationships in a long time, and I can’t wait to read more by this talented author.

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Spring by David Szalay is published by Vintage Books, 261 pages.