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.