Laura Barnett has written a wonderful debut novel, The Versions of Us. I recommend it unreservedly.
The Versions of Us is enjoyable, sensitively and finely crafted, and everything about it makes you think – makes you think about the versions of you and your life which you leave behind... of the ones you haven’t yet achieved... and the versions for which you silently, often subconsciously, grieve or long. Her narrative explores "the road less traveled" as well as the nuances of the path we do ultimately take, for all its triumphs and pitfalls. With her characters, as in real life, no route is perfect. No love is beyond pain. But the search, the relative search, for the best life her characters can live within the constraints in which they find themselves, with different amounts of bravery and integrity, is so vivid, so heart-rending, that you are addicted in a few pages. This is a work of which this new novelist can be immensely proud. On so many levels her book, her imagining and observations, leave the world a better place.
Inevitably The Versions of Us got me thinking: if we all stand at the crossroads and make choices in our lives from which we can’t return – the phenomenon the poet Robert Frost famously describes as “The Road Not Taken” – how do we maximise our choices... maximise the opportunities we have to become ‘the best version of ourselves’... so that when we get to our rocking chair (if we are so lucky) we can look back and feel happy and peaceful about our principal choices. Not 100% happy, of course, that simply isn’t compatible with a life that must contain mistakes and failures, detours, recovery, adjustment, improvisation and forgiveness; for life and people were never designed to be flawless. I mean largely happy, largely peaceful, that we gave this one life we are given one hell of a good shot.
After all, it isn’t a dress rehearsal!
So I’m wondering, what do you do to be, to find, the best version of yourself?
Take days off to escape the city and breathe in the beauty of nature? Take weeks off to lie by the beach and remember what it is to feel unstressed and sanguine? Take months (or years) away from your regular job to climb a mountain, learn a language, sink into another culture, rent a cottage in a foreign land and write a book, put on your headphones and escape into the power and rhythm of great music, dance until you can hardly stand, squash into a moshpit and absorb the energy of the crowd, get together with your best friend/s and laugh until your side aches, spend time in a monastery, learn a new sport or hobby, make love until you are so tired you have to sleep for a day to recover, sit on a park bench and simply watch the world go by?
We all need renewal. And we all need moments to pause. Each and every moment to pause, to sit and take stock of where we are and where we’d like to be, is very precious in the cut and thrust of a busy life.
Perhaps your tonic is simply to sit on the sofa and hug your children (if you’ve been blessed with them). Perhaps it’s to go to church, to pray, to do yoga, to jog along the river, to join a community with people of common interests. Perhaps it’s a date-night with your partner. Perhaps a dinner party where you plan something special for your friends. Perhaps all you need to lift your morale and and focus your inner-self is to sink into the dark before the curtain goes up at the theatre... or curl up with a good book, a book like The Versions of Us.
The recipe, the route, to the best version of yourself – a challenge which is never achieved to be filed in a final or complete manner... but which is ongoing at regular intervals... which is in fact a life pursuit – is the truth upon which every religion, every serious spiritual and artistic practice is based. And though fitness and health definitely helps, it is universally understood to be about our interior life, our attitude, our courage, kindness (to self and others), honesty and sensitive assessment of where we are and where we’d like to be – short, medium and long term. And the moments, hours or sessions we take to go to that gentle but revealing place of reflection is infinitely precious.
If we go there, if we consider the ‘versions of us’ and find in that examination that, actually, not so much is left wanting, that we are in fact on the track which is the best of the available options, we feel empowered, relieved or grateful. If we are off track, not really in harmony with our own heart and idiosyncratic hungers and desires, then it’s time to do something about it. And whatever advice we receive, only we can know the intentions and subtleties of our own heart.
Sometimes that something we need to ‘do’ is to let go. To give something up and to wait and see what flows in to replace it. I’ve had that experience recently. Other times it’s to take action, to ‘gird our loins’ and face our fears or reticence. I’ve had that too. This change of direction can be scary. It can be exposing, and make you feel vulnerable. But to be vulnerable is to be truly alive. There is no virtue or joy in living like a robot, in living someone else’s life – however cool or appropriate it may be on the surface. To consider the versions of yourself, and to review your focus and priorities as you go through life, is the road to fulfilment – ultimately the only road to fulfilment, however you perceive God, Mother Nature, Destiny or the Universe.
So before the summer ends, the best of times to lie quietly and lap up the beauty of the world around us, create a little space for yourself... alone or with a good book or CD... and snuggle into that space. The long weekend coming up is perfect for it.
The Versions of Us: this is a manuscript you can keep reading and writing as long as you have the breath and energy for change and reflection.
Thanks Laura Barnett. What a great first novel you’ve put out into the world. Like all great works of fiction, it speaks to the non-fiction in all of us. Brava!