Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler

1st Mar 2013

sarah butler ten things I've learnt about love

Sarah Butler’s début novel, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love draws heavily on the author’s experience of producing works of art and literature that explore and question our relationship with place.

Butler’s many years as a writer in residence and literary consultant at locations across London has given her a rich knowledge of the city, and this book is a deeply melancholy love song to the capital.

Two narratives collide here – Alice, a wayward traveller who returns home after months away just in time to see her father die; and Daniel, a homeless man wandering the streets of London, searching for the daughter he’s never met.

Interestingly, Daniel’s narrative is in the rare second person – his story is addressed solely to his elusive daughter, adding an extra heart-wrenching twist to a melancholy tale.

This is a many-textured, rather bleak story brimful of grief, touching on themes including the consequences of decisions, growing old, the home, parenting and parents’ roles, and our judgements of our own behaviour.

This is a real thinker’s tale: you’ll find yourself gripped by solemnity whilst reading it, but, unlike other ‘intellectual’ reads, this book still has a story with which you can gradually fall in love.

this is a many-textured, rather bleak story, brimful of griefButler breaks up her novel with frequent lists, such as ’10 things I’m frightened of’, ‘10 things I know about my mother’, and ’10 things I’ve found that spell your name’.

It’s a motif that could risk becoming tedious, but despite its repeated use, the technique provides interesting pauses in what is otherwise rather dense prose that doesn’t always flow as easily as it could.

These lists relate to a key facet of Daniel’s character: he appears to have a form of synaesthesia, attributing a colour to each letter of the alphabet.

He also likes collecting bits of junk he finds in the street, and uses it to spell out words using the colours of his findings for each letter.

This could have been wonderfully poignant, but it was so often the focus for the narrative that I found it over-egged – and sometimes the endless descriptions of things Daniel finds and where he finds them is, frankly, tedious.

This over-detailing is also present in some descriptions of the characters’ actions, and is one of the main reasons the novel gets off to an excruciatingly slow start. It does, however, get better – much better – so is worth sticking with if you can.

Alice in particular takes a long while to warm to, but redeems herself fully once you get to know her. Daniel is a delightfully tender although at times dark soul that gets under your skin almost immediately.

The final third of the novel provides a climactic sequence of events that rush forward like a river – at times meandering, and at other times almost overflowing. When this book moves, it can really move you. I just don’t think it does so enough, yet it shows promise, and I look forward to seeing what else Sarah Butler has up her sleeve.

Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love was published in hardback by Picador on 31st January, and is available from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookshop, priced at £12.99. An ebook version is also available, priced at £5.99.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: Fathers, daughters, and Londoners.

Other recommended reading: Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners provides a similarly rich tapestry of London, while Landfall by Helen Gordon is a similarly bleak and thought-provoking début novel.

Laura Vickers