Dhaka, Bangladesh
The Paper Lovers by Gerard Woodward

The Paper Lovers by Gerard Woodward

The set-up to Gerard Woodward's unsettling new novel has all the creeping sense of unease one might find in a chilling horror movie. Breezing into Arnold's comfortable, writerly and happy domestic life with Polly comes Vera, the cheerful, married mother of his young daughter's friend. Arnold is smitten, stealing time with her at the playground gates, elated by the "blissful energy" of their conversations. Despite knowing that he is being pulled towards uncertainty and danger, he feels he is in the "current of something irresistible". Anyone who reads The Paper Lovers will surely be screaming "don't do it!" as the pair first scuttle upstairs while their children watch television. Across his fiction and poetry Woodward has always been a keen observer of the family dynamic and here he deals confidently with love, marriage, betrayal and suburban stasis. When Arnold and Vera finally make love there is a nagging sense that it is a crime scene more than a tryst. "He had not experienced feelings like this before," writes Woodward, "how waves of the intensest pleasure and joy alternated with crashing waves of sadness and deepest sorrow." Admittedly, there are moments where The Paper Lovers teeters close to chronicling the self-inflicted first-world problems of the middle classes. But the way in which Woodward navigates these choppy waters is engrossing, if not always evenly handled. He takes on Christianity: Vera is a committed churchgoer, while Arnold doesn't initially believe he can have any kind of friendship with a practising Christian. In a neat play on expectations, however, it is Arnold who constantly battles with the guilt of betrayal, and Vera who is able to compartmentalise their weekly meetings. There are some intriguing ideas here about how a sense of identity and faith in oneself - or indeed a God - can be totally reshaped by a simple decision, and The Paper Lovers doesn't indulge Arnold's point of view. Instead, it is Polly, a publisher of books using her own handmade paper, who emerges as the quiet, determined hero of the story, mourning the loss of her pure, trusting innocence (and more horrified by Arnold's interest in religion than his infidelity) but revelling in a new, "beautiful hardness", which quickly sets in. Because Polly and Arnold feel like such authentic characters, you want to believe that quality will stick.

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