‘The Versions of Us’ by Laura Barnett

The Versions of UsstarstarstarLike the movie Sliding Doors, some moments seems pivotal. What if you’d not said yes? What if you had missed that airplane? What if you had taken that job in Australia? Do thoughts about what might have been ever haunt you? Given the same set of circumstances, would you have made the same decision?

This novel offers three different versions of the lives of Eva and Jim, two young students at Cambridge. One day Eva must suddenly swerve her bicycle to avoid hitting a small dog that darts onto the road, just as Jim is walking along the lane. What happens next will determine the rest of their lives.

The concept is intriguing and with chapters alternating between the three versions, Barnett offers a sort of ‘Choose Your Own Love Story’ experience. But I have a confession to make. When I read reviews of this book before I started, I noticed that a lot of people found it confusing, reading short chapters that alternate between three different story lines with roughly the same people. SO, I’ve been naughty (although the Readers Bill of Rights would back me up I think).

Instead of reading the book straight through, alternating the versions, I read each Version by itself, skipping ahead to do so. Then went back for the next Version etc. Had it been two versions, I think I could have coped but with three I think it helped keep things straight and I found the suspense in thinking about where the next version was going to diverge, irresistible. While reading I was looking for strengths and weaknesses in the characters and hyper aware of pivotal moments that might indicate fault lines. It was such fun to get to know the characters so thoroughly in various circumstances, and think about how people can bring out the best or the worst in each other.

I wonder if I did miss something by reading it this way, instead of the intended alternating chapters (which was actually the way the author wrote it, based on what she says in the youtube below). I’d love to know what you thought or if anyone else read it the same way I did? I actually met a woman on the train to London who noticed I was reading the book and said she’s just finished it and loved it! She read it straight through and said she only found it confusing at the start, so perhaps I overreacted. Either way you read it, it is a clever novel with much food for thought.

Highly recommended for book groups, I think there would be a lot to discuss, but get ready for some people not to like it because it does feel a little muddled at times…in the end it’s not so important to remember exactly what piece belongs to what version, but focus on the general trajectory of each version and how each story brings out different qualities in the characters.

Note: Reading in different orders seems to be in vogue. Ali Smith’s How to be Both (Bailey’s winner 2015) was purposely offered and printed in two versions. This is the brave new world of readers interacting differently with the same material! From the publishers of Smith’s book: “The books are intentionally printed in two different ways, so that readers can randomly have different experiences reading the same text. So, depending on which edition you happen to receive, the book will be: EYES, CAMERA, or CAMERA, EYES. Enjoy the adventure.” 

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