Sarah Butler’s beautiful novel Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love is out today in paperback, so it feels like a good time to share my review. I heard Sarah read an extract from the book at a Picador event over a year ago and I was immediately drawn to the story. But, and here’s the confession, despite downloading the eBook some time ago I let it slip down my TBR pile. That’s one of the problems with non-physical books – they’re not looking at you sorrowfully wondering why they are still unread. Luckily I saw a tweet about the paperback release and that spurred me into action.
It is a beautiful book, exploring the heartache of and connections between two people. Both are unsettled, rootless; the mood is set perfectly by the two lines from a John Clare poem:
‘so here I am homeless at home and half
gratified to feel I can be happy any where’.
I read a biography of Clare after reading Adam Foulds gorgeous novel The Quickening Maze, and dipped into his poetry. I was struck by Clare’s desire to disappear into the forest and live amongst the gypsies, and by his father’s need to walk the streets picking up stones in return for his poor relief rather than sit idly. Perhaps Clare got his restless spirit from his father. The two main characters of Ten Things certainly both have a wandering instinct. The narrative alternates between Alice and Daniel. Alice returns home to London from Mongolia because her father is dying. She’s reluctant to return to her strained relationship with her eldest sister, her broken love affair, and the home in which she has never felt at home. Daniel has no home; he is walking the streets, searching for something very precious he has lost.
The narrative is interspersed by lists they both make of ten things, which give an insight into their personalities and emotions. I loved these lists; they enhance and explain far beyond the few words needed to compile each one. They can be seriously emotional too; Daniel’s first list is of ten ways other people might describe him. There’s something starkly sobering about seeing the words tramp, bum, homeless, down on my luck, rough sleeper, dispossessed, scum, marginalised, misunderstood, and lost lined up on the page.
Daniel associates letters with colours, a form of synaesthesia, which gave me some of the most gorgeous imagery in the book. He spells out a name with objects he sees, such as the book in the library whose cover is glacial blue, or the piece of charcoal-grey leather belt. Even his angina is described as ‘ice-cold blue, beginning and end.’ He creates small, disposable works of art out of discarded objects, spelling out words with their colours. I could have happily read these descriptions forever.
The book offers contrasts between the characters' lives, such as the type of community or family structure Alice and Daniel have. Mostly Daniel keeps to himself, but he is drawn to helping a man he meets in a shelter and, when Daniel needs help he finds people want to be supportive and encouraging. Alice has a traditional family set-up on the surface, but struggles with those relationships. She doesn’t seem to have anyone that gives her the type of support she needs. There’s a gulf between her and her two sisters that is more than just an age gap, and she feels the burden of family disapproval. She’s searching for stability and peace, but running away is easier.
I think Ten Things is a book to take to you’re heart. It talks about love and grief, and family with a low, gentle, but insistent voice. Walking through London with Daniel as he shares his story is a privilege. Alice and Daniel travel separately through the novel but they are connected; whether Alice will stay still long enough to find out how is a journey worth taking.