I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour for Shelf Life today. This debut novel is a wonderful, quirky read, and while its experimental style may not suit all tastes, there is a compelling story within these pages.
Launching an intelligent, perceptive new voice in fiction, Shelf Life is the exquisite, heart-wrenching story of a woman rebuilding herself on her own terms.
Ruth is thirty years old. She works as a nurse in a care home and her fiancé has just broken up with her. The only thing she has left of him is their shopping list for the upcoming week.
And so she uses that list to tell her story. Starting with six eggs, and working through spaghetti and strawberries, and apples and tea bags, Ruth discovers that her identity has been crafted from the people she serves; her patients, her friends, and, most of all, her partner of ten years. Without him, she needs to find out – with conditioner and single cream and a lot of sugar – who she is when she stands alone.
Shelf Life begins with the breakup of Ruth and Neil. After ten years together, it seems as though the end of their relationship should be more intense or drawn out over a longer period – maybe as they try to resolve their differences, work out where things went wrong etc. – but that’s not the case. Neil ends it, and Ruth outwardly accepts this, in a way that the reader soon realises is very much in keeping with her character. Ruth works as a nurse at a care home, and is extremely accommodating in all aspects of her life, even when she’s not entirely happy with the circumstances. She goes out of her way to be pleasant to those around her, even when I thought that she perhaps needed to be more prepared to tell people where to go. It’s clear that Ruth is a bit of an oddball, but I became increasingly concerned about her as the novel progressed – there are hints that things aren’t quite right here, although it’s only as I got to the end of the novel that I fully understood what was happening.
Most of the chapters are told from Ruth’s perspective, and we see her day to day life post-Neil as she works, returns home, visits her mother etc. These chapters are often interspersed with dreams which are highlighted in italic text. Seemingly random, in the way that dreams are, I thought that these, often brief, snippets revealed a lot about Ruth’s character and her state of mind, and while I’m not one to dwell upon dreams and their meaning, it’s not hard to spot an anxiety dream. I thought that this was an excellent way in which to reveal more of a character’s feelings, and was a fantastic example of “show, don’t tell”.
When Neil leaves, he hastily packs most of his belongings to take with him, leaving only the odd sock behind. With little to remember him by, Ruth turns to their last shopping list, and, beginning with six eggs uses this list to tell her story. Each chapter is a separate item from the list, and each one appears in its chapter. Some of the references are more obvious than others, but I loved the way the seemingly insignificant shopping list became a part of the narrative. Told mostly in the days and weeks following the breakup, there are also flashbacks to earlier times, showing how Neil and Ruth first met, for example. The chapters use different styles of writing, with the flashbacks in particular formed of email conversations, text messages, online chats between schoolgirls etc. in order to tell the story. I loved the use of different writing formats – I felt that they added a huge amount to the story, and helped to keep the narrative fresh.
Neil was quite a surprising character, and his email exchanges reveal a huge amount about him. I immediately felt that Ruth was better off without him, but could see that this wouldn’t necessarily be apparent to Ruth herself. In Neil, Franchini has created a seemingly bland individual, one who is a bit of a dick at times, but who, on the surface at least, seems normal. Just beneath the surface, however, lies an incredibly creepy character, and while there were moments that made me chuckle – his “anonymous” email address and sign off are inspired – his actions and behaviour became increasingly disturbing to me.
Shelf Life is a quirky story about a protagonist who can’t fail to evoke sympathy. I read on, not sure what to expect from the novel in terms of an outcome, and while it’s a little vague on the surface, the shift in style and perspective reveals a lot about what the reader has just read. I found this to be a clever and thought-provoking read, and I’ll be looking out for future novels from this author.
Shelf Life is published by Doubleday on 29 August. Many thanks to the publisher and Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for my review copy and the opportunity to take part in the blog tour.
Make sure you check out the other fantastic bloggers taking part in the tour: