This book, which explores a young woman’s life across three alternate timelines, was so good that I can’t stop thinking about it!
Book: Which Way? by Theodora Benson
Publication date: 16th September 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by British Library Publishing. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: casual contemporary racism; infidelity as a major theme.
‘There was no one in the room. Blinds and curtains were closed; the light of the skies, if any, was shut out. … Only the fire was alive, consuming its life-for what? Then the door opened and as Claudia came with hurried steps into the fire’s glow, two open letters in her hand, the telephone began ringing. She shut the door and turned up the lights.’ Claudia Heseltine returns to this moment three times in a series of parallel narratives. As the novel presses the re-set button, she accepts each invitation, one by telephone, two by letter, to a specific social event, and in doing so her life goes down a different path with its own possibilities and achievements, sorrows and disappointments.
This is an inventive novel, published in 1931, which contemplates the consequences of a single decision.
There’s something very tempting about daydreaming: what could your life have been like if you had done something differently? There are infinite turning points that influence the course of our lives, some more subtle than others – for me, I always think of my first Sunday at university. In Freshers’ Week I’d signed up for so many new societies, including two which had their meetings at 7pm on Sunday night, and I was undecided about which to go to until I literally had to choose which way to walk. The society I chose to go to ended up being such an integral part of my life: not only was it the only society I stayed in throughout all four years of my degree (and for several years after!), not only did it develop my writing skills and allow me to find a ton of new things I love doing, it also brought me friends I still love twelve years on (hi Judith!) and, perhaps most influentially of all, that was the night I met my husband for the first time. So sometimes I think: if I’d have walked the other way that night, and gone to the other meeting instead, my life might be totally, completely different now.
That’s the central premise of Which Way?: Claudia, a young middle class woman in the 1930s, finds herself with three invitations for the same weekend, and she must choose which one to accept. The book starts with the build up to this one decision, so we learn a little about her, her upbringing, her friends and the man she’s dating, and then, in turn, shows us the results of her accepting each invitation, following her through the next five years in each timeline. There’s no high-drama sci-fi plot here, no crossing of the timelines or even awareness of them; it’s a thought experiment and a character study, and each Claudia is as real and possible as any other. Throughout the book the dramatic irony builds; when Claudia, at the end of the first section, ponders how life could have been different if she’d only gone to a different party, we as the reader are as much in the dark as she is, but when she thinks it at the end of the last section, we’ve seen the possibilities, and it colours the scene in a fascinating way.
This is not the kind of book you read to get hooked on the plot. It’s a slow, gentle story which could easily feel mundane – and that’s before you get into the parallel timelines and repeated scenes from different angles. But, despite there being very little action, from the very start I was riveted at how brilliantly clever the whole thing is. It’s wonderfully written, and it cuts into the realities of Claudia’s life with pinpoint precision, in a way that left me not only fascinated by her and her world, but considering my own life. There’s a bittersweetness to the story, because it doesn’t promise a ‘true’ timeline or a ‘good’ outcome, just showcases possibilities, all of which are as realistic as each other. None of the Claudias will ever know if they would have been happier in a different way, and I think that’s what I found most touching about this story – it could be bleak, but instead to me it felt almost optimistic. It’s also a fabulous look at the lifestyles of the well-off middle classes of the 30s, and how they spent their time – even without the timeline conceit, this would have been a brilliant read for social history reasons.
Most of all, it’s an incisive and introspective character study of a woman who is remarkably ordinary; she’s not a wholly good or bad person, even when she does good or bad things, she’s just someone moving through life as best she can. Yes, she’s rather selfish, and she can be silly, but her flaws are not really played for laughs or tragedy, they’re just a part of her. It’s utterly fascinating to watch as the different timelines show how easily she (and by extension anyone) can have their personality influenced by the people with whom they keep company. I found the feminist themes here fascinating; you could certainly accuse Claudia of being wholly centred around men no matter which timeline she’s in, and it certainly seems at times as though she’s utterly trapped by men and their decisions. But actually, what’s interesting is seeing how she is able to exert agency and seek her own happiness around and despite these men; I think it would definitely be an interesting reread, seeing how subtly her personality changes as she grows up each time.
I also found the other material included in the book really interesting. There are some historical notes, a biography of the author, and a preface before you start, and an insightful afterword from series consultant Simon Thomas that draws out some of the themes and parallels present in the text; none of this is strictly necesssary to enjoy the story, but it all helps contextualise Claudia’s actions in the time period. Given the lack of resolution to the actual plot, I found the afterword was a great way to sort of cool down when I finished the book – it gave me the space to think a little about it before turning the final page.
I read this book around two weeks ago, and it’s still hovering heavily in my thoughts. I highly, highly recommend it to anyone interested in women’s fiction or social history, with the caveat that it might make you feel very introspective about your life choices yourself! It’s just brilliant, in concept and in execution. Five out of five cats.