Not Working – Lisa Owens

I tell him about the day I was seized by a powerful impulse to start swallowing things on my desk: drawing pins, lumps of Blu-tack, whatever fit into my mouth.

‘I got as far as putting a paper clip on my tongue before realising there was another way. So I spat it out and went to my boss’s office to quit.’


Claire Flannery quit her job a fortnight ago and is living off her savings while she tries to figure out her purpose in life. She begins her quest by re-reading the same paragraph of Ulysees; applying for a job she’s not even sure she wants writing blue heritage plaques; going to the gym to end her membership but signing up for personal training sessions instead; drinking, and causing a family rift following her comments at her granddad’s wake:

‘He really did love to show off his war wounds,’ I say to our table. My cousins nod and smile, murmuring agreement. ‘And more!’ I continue, pointing down at my lap and laughing. ‘Even after the heart op.’

‘Woah!’ says my cousin Faye. ‘What? Gum used to show you his…?’

‘Oh – no, no. “Show” makes it sound…It wasn’t…I don’t think it was really on purpose on anything,’ I say. Everyone is looking at me. No one is talking. ‘Honestly, it definitely wasn’t a big deal. At all. I always thought it was – Did no one else have this? How it just used to kind of slip out?’

The novel’s divided into chapters which are then subdivided into vignettes, the length of which varies from a single sentence to four or five pages, all of which have a short heading. Some of these reoccur throughout the novel: Tube details the people Claire sees on her journeys while Dreams is fairly self-explanatory. The lengthy pieces tend to be encounters with her friends, family members or her long-term partner, Luke. It’s the latter which interested me the most, Owens excels at showing what a long-term relationship is like:


Some nights our bed feels much too small: hot and hard with elbows and knees, and the cloying stickiness of flesh against flesh, not just Luke’s on mine, but my own on me, inner thigh cleaving to inner thigh, arm to armpit, breast against breast, and I long to be alone and stretch out asterisk-like; but then, of course, there are also the nights when the space between us is chilly and wide, and my reaching fingertips yield no response, or sometimes a slight shrugging-off.

Claire’s quest to find her purpose explores the modern idea that we have a function, that our work should be fulfilling and worthwhile rather than something which pays the bills without personal enhancement. Her visits to her grandmother also show how life has changed for women in particular:

‘Claire,’ Grandma says, ‘I’m joking. You don’t help out – that’s fine; it’s how you are. I remember what your age was like – of course, I had four children under eight then, but modern life is different. You’ve got an awful lot on.’

The structure of the book could have leaned towards meandering but there is a narrative drive, led by Owens’ sharp insight into relationships between family, friends and lovers. Not Working is the millennials’ Bridget Jones’ Diary but, despite appearances, this generation seem to be much more together than mine ever were.


Thanks to Picador for the review copy.

20 thoughts on “Not Working – Lisa Owens

  1. What a great quote from the grandmother – implying that modern life is more demanding than what hers was at the same age, even though she had 4 kids. If having 4 kids is not ‘a lot on’, then I don’t know what is!
    I like the premise of this one – I’m glad I read your review.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Do you think this generation is more ‘together’? I wonder… I think they’re more demanding and, as you noted there is an emphasis on work being fulfilling and enriching as opposed to simply paying the bills. Do we expect too much? I had a long chat to my brother about this as he was having issues about his career direction. When I said “Get any old job, watch the clock and then get home to your hobbies [music] – there’s nothing wrong with that.”, it was met with stunned silence!


    • When I wrote that I was thinking particularly in relation to the Bridget Jones’ idea of calorie counting, chasing a man etc. In Not Working, there’s a stable, longterm relationship, no ridiculous relationship to food. As for work, I can’t disagree with your advice to your brother! And that idea’s expressed by one of Claire’s friends in the book too. I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to it either, as if you do have a job which is fulfilling, it often stops you pursuing hobbies. It’s a catch 22, I think and there’s room for both ways of living.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agree. Where I live, kids are very much pushed toward university and careers. When the time comes, I’ll be telling my own kids, to find something they love (hobby OR work) and go from there.

        For better or worse, my brother and I grew up with a father who managed to combine his hobby and his work, which made for a fabulous career for him but perhaps unrealistic expectations for us! I remember when I started full time work feeling surprised by the number of people who just ‘turned up’ and weren’t particularly excited by work – they were competent just not in raptures. Even allowing for my graduate-enthusiasm, it was interesting to observe these people whose lives were fulfilled (and defined) by things other than their job. Maybe they had the work- life balance right? Or maybe it is about how ambitious you are ( and where your ambitions lie)?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Fantastic review. I just read it in three sittings last weekend and I almost cried at the recognition of my own troubles and anxieties and… everything. A work of reference for female and feminist Millenials, no doubt.


  4. Pingback: Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu – Yi Shun Lai | The Writes of Woman

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