Teetering on the eve of Covid, We Need to Talk by Jonathan Crane tells the story of a woefully average mundane English town, through the eyes of the various residents. Crane perfectly encapsulates the suffocation and claustrophobia of the environment with these short stories. The result is a distinguishable insight into small-town living, tied together by a frustrating desire for something ‘more’.
The book begins with an event all too familiar to those who know anything about local town politics – the objection to a new housing development. This ongoing battle appears throughout the stories; for some, it is a passing observance that has little impact on the characters’ lives. For others, the development undercuts daily activities and is a frequent topic of conversation.
Choosing to vary the characters’ responses to the development makes Crane’s portrayal of a small, unknown town wildly realistic: it would have been easy to place this as the event that unites/divides Sudleigh, the town. Yet as interest in the proposal shifts, it’s clear that, even though the characters may share (part of) a postcode, they lead different lives, seperated through economics, upbringing, and culture.
We have Tom, a young boy who is estranged from his family, looking for a home as he advances into adulthood. There’s Shelia, a woman who feels increasingly betrayed by Sudleigh and its promise of security. George, an elderly gentleman tasked with continuing his life in the town following his wife’s death. Josh, an expectant father who is given the gift of a local family business, but sees it as a burden. Ted, a Sudleigh returnee, unsettled by the life and community he left behind.
“Over the last few months, he’d forgotten what it was to have a home. And now, among people he could scarcely understand, he was accepted. Was that home? The place where you are accepted?”
Each story is rich with the every day – nothing is unusual or out of the ordinary, and that’s what makes We Need to Talk so enjoyable to read.
Yet this isn’t just a collection of happenings in a mundane town. The stories – like the characters – try hard to talk to each other. As readers, we’re able to pick up the subtle mentions and highlight the connections between the families, individuals, and events.
The bubbling, claustrophobic effect is heightened by this apparent inability to effectively communicate frustrations. There is a sense of defeat from many of the characters – is this the way life will always be, a series of inconsequential happenings that, try as they might, are pushing them towards this life in Sudeigh? But is the alternative also too overwhelming, too impossible to believe?
“…he thought about the suicide on the train the other day, the sudden sharp impact, the choice…Was that what it was, the suicide? A protest against the impossibility of it all. He couldn’t think about that.”
All of the characters have things they need to say, so much so that the story often ends without a concrete conclusion. As we turn the page and proceed to the next instalment, we’re left pondering the outcome of our previous encounter.
There’s a great deal of unsaid that could be alleviated if the characters were more aligned, both within and in-between the stories. Yet this separation and disconnect only add to the alienation of small-town living and the reality of the community.
Many of the characters’ true ambitions are crushed or limited by their time in Sudleigh, yet for most, leaving is not a realistic option. By leaving a lot of the stories seemingly unresolved, Crane has tapped into these frustrations. While some narratives are no doubt improved and the endings poignant, there’s an overwhelming sense that ‘nothing will ever change’. The cracks in this gentle way of living are plain to see.
The snapshots are so pure and so much fun to read. We Need to Talk is a delicate portrayal that toys with every emotion and perfectly captures the hundreds of ‘Sudleighs’ around England. The simmering disdain is eerily accurate, and Crane’s decision to set it obviously close to the beginning of the pandemic gave me a sense of nostalgia for a simpler – if indeed more ridiculous – time.
We Need to Talk is published by Lightning Books and is available here.
Jonathan Crane completed an MA in Literature and a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Essex, where he is now an academic in Creative Writing. He also works with charities to design and deliver writing programmes in prison and community settings.
His previous writing includes fiction and academic papers. Formerly a musician/composer, he has released two albums. We Need to Talk is his first novel.
He currently lives in Hampshire.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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