Author: Carrie Hope Fletcher
Publisher: Little, Brown/Sphere
Publication date: 14 July 2016
Category: adult fiction
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Genre: contemporary, magical realism, chick lit
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Evie Snow has lived a long, good life. Full of optimism and not without sacrifice, she’s had eighty-two years to find her place in the world. When it comes to finding her place in the next, however, there’s an unexpected complication.
Evie’s reached the door of her own private heaven, but it won’t open.
To open the door, Evie will have to unburden her soul of the secrets weighing it down – secrets she’s kept for over fifty years. Transformed into her twenty-seven-year-old self, Evie’s journey of a lifetime will see her revisit events and people she thought she’d lost forever – and come face-to-face with a love she thought she’d left behind long ago.
Before her days were filled with the sounds of children, grandchildren and a constant, humming ache for something that could never be, there was only one sound she wanted to hear: the sweet melody of a violin. Back then, she imagined a different future. Before, there was Vincent.
On The Other Side is charming, easy-to-read stuff. It has a remarkably similar plot device premise to Nothing Tastes As Good by Claire Hennessy (reviewed here last week and also released on 14th July, though I read the ARC in May) – they’re both narrated by characters who are technically ghosts completing tasks related to their old life – but that’s where the similarities end. Where Nothing Tastes as Good is dark, snarky and focuses on the struggles facing teen girls, On The Other Side is cheerful, romance-focused reading with the occasional serious undertone.
Vincent Winters is Evie Snow’s lost love, her what-might-have-been, her once-upon-a-time, but as complications unfurl, it’s evident that there’s more to the reason Evie Snow married a man named Summers instead. It’s a saccharine sweet, if idealised, romance, which sweeps the rest of the plot into its embrace. In terms of content, it’s all very PG; while released as an adult book, On The Other Side’s straightforward style, short chapters and character-driven plot make it clear the aim is to appeal to a wide audience.
Fletcher is known as one of the brighter, more sincere faces of generation YouTube, but On the Other Side also bears the hallmarks of her day job (as the West End’s Éponine and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Truly Scrumptious), if not literally then subtly, because, first things first, the story is there. Live theatre, particularly musical theatre, regularly seeks to make the impossible plausible, whether it’s singing a rebellion, flying a magic car, quintet-ing a gang war, defying gravity, the entirety of Cats, giving America’s favourite fighting Frenchman the fastest rap in living memory or just throwing fairytales at the stage to see what sticks. Musicals are aware that you’ve already suspended your disbelief by committing to a story where even ordinary information is delivered with synchronised key changes and the occasional good old-fashioned mid-sentence falsetto. This is the kind of suspend-your-disbelief story background Fletcher is coming from as she draws on magical realism – from semi-magical birds to talking heart trees – and gives this novel a feeling of wistful unreality.
If it’s the promise of dipping into Evie’e past that has you intrigued, then you should know that even going back fifty-five years, this book isn’t set in any distinctive era. There’s a sense that it’s meant to be quirky or disconcerting, but it’s a tricky idea to pull off, and in this case leaves the reader only with the sense that it was perhaps simply more convenient not to have this summer release (cleverly timed to coincide with the start of the school holidays) held up by months of historical research. The placement of relics like sexism and arranged marriage alongside modern conveniences like mobile phones and skinny jeans seem out of place, off-kilter. It’s a shame too, as I love history, including historical fiction and drama. I was looking forward to a book with the good-cheer-in-tough-times feel of Call the Midwife or maybe the snazzier sixties-in-Australia equivalent Lovechild. On The Other Side misses an opportunity for richer storytelling here.
Evie is an easy heroine to like. There’s perhaps an element of self-insert fiction here (Evie has blonde curly hair, brown eyes, an emerald-green coat and a noticeably hopeful outlook) but it’s pretty harmless. The book’s secondary characters don’t leap from the page; overlong character descriptions do little more than introduce cardboard cut-outs from which sage advice, monotonous dialogue or unexplained villainy will leak. There is however welcome LGBTQIA+ representation (specifically bi and pan rep).
Unfortunately, the writing style isn’t as polished as it should be. It’s full of excessive adverbs, vocal clichés, unnecessary repetition, and tell in place of show. It’s heavy-handed and like many débuts indicates an author who hasn’t yet learned that it’s sometimes better to leave a few details to the imagination than rush it all out into two pages. You know that writing style you had when you were just starting out and your idea was good, but everything still came out in stiff dialogue and great lumps of exposition, single-spaced Arial size 12, one long run-on explanation from start to finish? And that writing style was totally fine, because you were learning as you went along and almost everyone falls into the tropes and traps of early aspiring fiction anyway. That’s essentially what you’ll find in On The Other Side, and to a well-read audience it will be particularly distracting. It’s the writing style of someone who has potential, but is still telling the story the way their early-writer self would. If it’s well-developed, make-your-eyes-widen-with-awe prose you’re after, you won’t find it here – yet.
Simple, straightforward and saccharine sweet, On the Other Side is a charming, if uneven, fiction début. It’s warm and well-meaning, though a solid premise gives way to a style that needs a lot of work.