When I began writing Shelf Life, I had just relocated to London from a small provincial town in Tuscany. Living and writing in my second language, I had become aware of the tenuous boundaries of identity; some days I struggled to believe I existed at all, and there was nobody around who could confirm that I did. Ruth, the protagonist in my book, is a 30-year-old geriatric nurse. She has built her life around others: her patients, her colleagues and, most of all, her partner, Neil. He abandons her at the beginning of the novel and Ruth has no idea how to exist on her own. Ruth and I share a commonality: neither of us knew how to be a person alone. The question, then, was how to truthfully write her story, when I felt that learning to stand on my own two feet wasn’t so much the unfolding ribbon of a plot, but a daily confrontation with the world — a series of separate occurrences, rather than a neat string of events.
This short list acknowledges my own debt of gratitude and inspirations that helped me to unravel Ruth’s specific predicament. These are books that use form in clever ways, and particularly to question the power dynamics that shape a certain type of heteronormative, typically white, Western couple, digging into the darker spaces of mainstream commercial romance. They are books that challenge us to think about the ways we love and to honestly confront how our choices are affected by privilege and power.
In Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, a woman is left behind by her husband, who has been pursuing a parallel affair with a much younger woman. After she accidentally locks herself in their flat during a stifling hot summer day, with two young children to look after and the sick family dog, Olga’s perception of reality begins to break down as she gradually disassociates from the woman she had perceived herself to be. It is devastating, claustrophobic read that compels us to confront the ways we erase ourselves to make way for the priorities of the people we love.
There is no official break-up in Music for Torching by A. M. Homes, yet one can’t help but think what a great relief it would have been if there was one. Few novels tear at the heart of the heteronormative white bourgeois couple as effectively as this one does. Developed from a short story, the novel retains the same protagonists, Paul and Elaine, the same terse, tense style, and exacting, precise prose. Each chapter delivers a blow, and the cumulative effect stuns us as things get worse and worse, until everything, quite literally, goes up in flames.
In all-too-real dystopia The Girl at the Door by Veronica Raimo, an expat couple have settled in the fictional Miden, a perfect society modelled on Northern European social-democracies, after ‘the Crash’ has curbed opportunities to find work in their own, unnamed ‘country’. ‘Her’ and ‘Him’, who narrate the story in alternating chapters, both benefit from the greater prosperity of Miden. He works as a lecturer at the local art college; she is six-months pregnant with his child and trying to adjust to their new circumstances. When a young student turns up on the doorstep, accusing ‘Him’, her former professor, of rape, the couple become quickly aware of the blinding, toxic features of monogamous co-dependency.
Aftermath by Rachel Cusk is not technically a novel, but a memoir of the author’s divorce from her husband, yet it would be reductive to draw a clear line between truth and fiction in such a complex work, which probes the very relationship between truth and narrative authority in fiction. To tell her own truth about marriage and heartbreak, Cusk opts for a very objective gaze through which she ruthlessly exposes the hypocrisies of heteronormative coupledom. Her clinical rigour is such that it forces us to turn inwards to scrutinise our own interactions with the same, painstaking honesty.
Shelf Life by Livia Franchini is out now.