"Living With It" is Lizzie Enfield's third novel and for me it represents a significant change in her writing style. Her previous two novels could be seen as clever re-workings of the themes of Brief Encounter; intelligent romances with an edgy uncertainty about the potential of infidelity. This novel has a much darker tone and, to my mind, far greater depth and emotional resonance.
Essentially it is a novel about the choices we make in life, both for ourselves and for our families, and the unforeseen consequences that can result from those decisions. Ben and Maggie are devastated to discover that their baby daughter, Iris, has become profoundly deaf after being exposed to the measles virus. Their friends Isobel and Eric feel guilty that the virus was passed on by their daughter Gabriella, particularly as Isobel had refused the MMR vaccination for her children. Ben blames Isobel for his daughter’s deafness. The situation is complicated by the fact that Isobel is the woman that Ben fell in love with at University, who eventually married his best friend, Eric. The central question is whether Ben’s decision to sue Isobel and Eric for damages is motivated by a sense of justice for his daughter or a sense of revenge for past emotional betrayals.
Enfield previously used first person narration sporadically within "Uncoupled" for the character of Anne-Marie, although I personally felt that these sections were the least engaging of that particular book. Here she has embraced first-person narration fully and completely by telling the story through alternate first person voices, those of Isobel and Ben, her main protagonists. It's a device that gives the novel a sense of immediacy and enables her to present alternate views of the same situation to great effect. The novel has an intense focus which makes it a disconcertingly uncomfortable read at times. There were moments when I felt like a voyeur observing a series of fractious arguments between strangers.
Enfield’s real skill lies in the voices that she creates for Isobel and Ben. Her ability to write from a male perspective and her innate understanding of the male psyche give the novel a raw edge, and also provides much of the gentle humour, alongside her observations of Isobel’s children. I feel certain that Lizzie’s own children probably provided much of the source material.
As a reader I did initially question whether Lizzie had made a mistake in writing a novel where the central characters are all so flawed and unlikeable. Isobel’s husband Eric is so unsupportive and downright unpleasant that I began to question why he and Isobel were still together. However as I worked through the book I began to realise that the balanced approach to Isobel and Ben means that the reader is not encouraged to “side” with either one of them. Each of them has made mistakes, and each has to learn to live with them.
I found this to be a compelling, thought-provoking and ultimately satisfying novel that bravely tackles some complex and emotive issues. I would recommend it without hesitation.