'Idiopathy' by Sam Byers

I’m really glad someone gave me a copy of this book. I might not have come across it otherwise, and then I would have missed out on a very quirky, very strange but ultimately great story.

Idiopathy, the debut novel from Sam Byers, is one of those rare gems. A book whose characters you don’t really like all that much but which nonetheless keeps you reading until the end of the novel, because you can’t wait to find out what happens. In this case, the answer is, “Not much.” Because mostly, it’s a series of episodes in the lives of three characters, Daniel, his ex-girlfriend Katharine (definitely not Kate), and Nathan. Daniel is trying to convince himself he loves his current girlfriend Angelica and it’s all very sickly love-you-darling-love-you-too-sugarplum stuff, but in a way, we’re made to feel slightly sorry for Angelica, because she just wants a normal relationship and genuinely believes she has one.

The novel begins with Katharine, remembering a recent family function when she was stuck in her mother’s living room as various similar-looking relatives coo over photos and make sure to compliment her mother’s purse (which is essential, as no compliments means she will throw it in the bin). Katharine herself is still smarting from the break-up with Daniel, though she would never admit it, and is unpopular at work where she is making her way through a series of various unsuitable men.

Katharine gets a message from an old mutual friend, Nathan, who no one has heard from for more than a year, and decides to call Daniel to try to figure out between them what to do about it. Awkwardness ensues.

Without giving away too much of the plot, this is all I can really say about the novel itself. Not much happens, everything takes place within the space of only a few days, we get to feel Daniel’s frustration, especially when a demonstrator called Sebastian comes to dinner with his girlfriend (he demonstrates for the sake of it, we’re led to understand, and takes particular delight in picketing Daniel’s workplace). While Angelica is away with Sebastian, campaigning about various things, Daniel takes the opportunity to invite both Katharine and Nathan round for the evening. And then we, the readers, find out what happens next.

There are some great comic moments and a lot of deadpan humour, thanks mainly to Katharine, and the novel takes a swipe at many aspects of middle-class society types. The writing style is interesting. There are many paragraphs which comprise only a single sentence, but these sentences can be half a page or more long. But this doesn’t detract from enjoyment of the book in any way. It’s unusual, and as a writer myself, I found myself trying to figure out what Sam Byers was doing, but it works well. A lot of other writers, and I’d even go as far as to say most writers, would find that style hard to pull off.

The ending of the novel is strange, but fitting, and though it kind of leaves the reader wanting more, at the same time, we’re satisfied that this is where the story ends. All in all, this is a great debut.