I really enjoyed Laura Barnett’s debut novel, The Versions of Us, and I was absolutely delighted when I was sent a copy of her follow up, Greatest Hits, ahead of its publication.
Greatest Hits features Cass Wheeler, a famous singer songwriter who withdrew from the public eye ten years ago, and who is now looking to release a very personal greatest hits album – not of the songs that were the most popular with her fans or of the tracks that sold the most, but the ones that were inspired by the key moments in her life:
Not, she’d said, the obvious songs – the label had put that record out long ago – but the songs that meant the most to her. The songs that tracked the arc of a lifetime.
Over the course of a single day, Cass, alone, listens to her music, and reveals her story to the reader from her childhood to the current day.
The idea of a character revealing the highs and lows of their life isn’t a new one, but I really enjoyed Barnett’s unique approach to this type of story. There are sixteen chapters, and each one starts with one of Cass’s songs, the lyrics for which have been written by Barnett in collaboration with acclaimed singer songwriter Kathryn Williams, and which will be released as a studio album to coincide with the publication of Greatest Hits.
The chapters are told in chronological order, and the reader sees Cass as a young girl, taking her first piano lessons, and how, as she grows up, she tries to make her way in the world of music where success is notoriously hard to come by whilst going through the key milestones of life such as love and marriage. Cass’s life has many highs and lows, and whilst she is successful and realises her dreams, there are plenty of sour notes in her life. It’s clear from the outset that she’s suffered a great tragedy in her life, although the reader doesn’t find out what this is until later in the novel.
I found Cass’s story to be incredibly compelling – the hints at the tragedy to come are intriguing, as is her decision to withdraw from the public eye, but I also found that Greatest Hits gave an insight into the life of a musician, with everything that entails. I thought that Cass’s life, from living in relative squalor as she was starting out, touring small towns and trying to get a gig anywhere that would let her have a stage for a fraction of time was an accurate and realistic portrayal of the steps someone has to go through in order to “make it”. This isn’t a Cinderella story of someone who is transformed into a star overnight, this is a story of hard work and elbow grease as Cass puts everything she has into her music.
Interspersed with Cass’s recollections of the past are snippets from her current day life, and I enjoyed this aspect of the novel too, albeit marginally less than the chapters looking back. It felt a little as though Barnett was providing a little light relief between those chapters, as these interludes tended to be lighter in tone, even if they weren’t entirely happy either. I’ll admit that I was always eager to get back to Cass’s past, however – I always wanted to know what happened next in her life.
Greatest Hits is quite different in style and tone to The Versions of Us, and shows that Barnett won’t be the sort of author that sticks to a tried and tested formula. I absolutely loved Greatest Hits, and I expect it to be one of my books of the year
Greatest Hits is published today (15 June) by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Many thanks to Rebecca Gray for providing a copy for review.