Mark Haysom’s heartbreaking debut novel

By TASHNY SUKUMARAN, The Star of Malaysia

An ordinary tale of a family struggling to make ends meet is delivered with telling effect.

THE Beatles’ first single, 1962’s Love Me Do, is a strikingly teenage effort – a promise to stay true, a vow of everlasting love and sweetness. But the same cannot be said of British author Mark Haysom’s debut novel, Love, Love Me Do – named for the song and also set in the 1960s – a powerful, exhausting story of both the frailness and strength of human hearts.

Truman Bird, a lying layabout of a man, forces his wife Christie and their children from their Brighton home into a crummy caravan parked in the Ashdown forest under the guise of a summer holiday.

But six weeks on he’s nowhere to be seen; he’s seeking out borrowed money and solace in unfamiliar arms on the road, while his wife cooks, cleans and worries in an “idiotic caravan in this hateful forest.”

(After all, Truman never really wanted children, it seems.)

Love, Love Me Do is not a little bit difficult to read: Truman’s casual, callous mistreatment of his own family is offputting and raises hackles. With minimal effort, Haysom has you by the heartstrings, picking a side and hoping for better days.

The language is clean, everyone has a voice that’s simple yet striking; an instinctive sympathy for Christie gives your heart pangs while Truman’s narration raises your hackles and earns much deserved disgust.

Out for an easy ride, Truman is constantly looking for money he can get without putting any work in and his fast talking ways make hardworking, bright Christie (whose dreams of going to college were shattered by a cynical mother, whose career was stopped short by a bullying husband) even more the heroine of this novel.

Although Love, Love Me Do professes to speak of 1960s and British places like Brighton and Sussex, it is a story that could be set anywhere at any time – 1980s Malaysia, for instance – and that will hit unsettlingly close to home for anyone who has struggled to make ends meet.

Christie’s children, too, are elegantly fleshed-out and three-dimensional without trying too hard. Baxter’s confusion and eagerness for a father who is present, who cares, makes for compelling reading (“If he could just get used to the way the boy looked at him with his mother’s eyes,” thinks Truman, “maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to spend some time with him”) while wild-eyed wide-smiling Megan will remind female readers of the moment they, as girls, realised the world will not treat them fairly as women.

The caravan, where much of Christie’s pain is played out, is threadbare and cramped, her tasks are minute in their scale but somehow so much more tiring in the confined space, especially with a fretting, teething baby.

And watching over the crummy caravan and its four occupants is a mysterious Soldier, a leftover of war living in the forest who swears to be their grizzled guardian angel in a stained, dark coat.

His companionship with Baxter is warm and real, the revelations heartbreaking (“it was the best day,” Baxter says of an afternoon spent making model trains with his father, “the only best day”) – there’s so much loss in love, and Haysom captures the hundreds of everyday betrayals just as vividly as the big ones.

Of course, no love story is complete without gangsters: a notorious gangster is on the hunt for Truman, who has finally bitten off more than he can talk his way out of. The wolfish Strachan, strangely honourable despite his line of work, quickly makes the scores that need settling personal.

What makes Love, Love Me Do so superb is how everyone in it (save Truman) has a heart, which carries with it a pity beyond all telling – hearts, after all, are not so sturdy … except when they are. From Christie to Strachan to Soldier and his sad story, Love, Love Me Do carries with it all the heartbreak and hope that comes with a second chance at life or, better still, love.

It would be presumptuous to say this book has a happy ending; but you’ll come away from it with better knowledge of a mother’s strength, a son’s honour and a soldier’s grace.

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