A summary of this fabulous debut from Kiare Ladner doesn’t do justice to the deeper themes that resonate beneath its surface. Meggie, a twenty-three-year-old woman living in London, leaves a stable life and relationship in pursuit of a woman whose behaviour, appearance and attitudes attract and fascinate her.
Meggie is worried about being staid, about following the trajectory middle-class life lays out of university, job, marriage, children, retirement, death, and ultimately missing something more. She wants something against which she is forced to react, to change, something for which she has to risk, to stretch the limits of standard expectations.
Sabine is a reflection of all the things she desires. When Meggie meets her in her day job, a job she does solely to support her studies, she is immediately drawn to Sabine. She wants to be friends with this interesting woman, clearly so much cooler and more edgy than Meggie feels. So when Sabine leaves to take on a night shift at the same company, Meggie is sure she’ll be able to balance her life and studies better if she too, follows Sabine into a nocturnal lifestyle of shift work that gives you periods of night work against weeks free of any work at all.
But the book isn’t glibly looking at female friendship and desire for the sake of a speedy plot. Nightshift wallows in the complicated territory of female friendship where the sexual boundaries established in heterosexual friendships between women and men, are less defined. Is Meggie really a lesbian, is she bisexual, or is she just obsessively in loving friendship with a woman whose behaviour doesn’t make straightforward sense to her?
Sabine is a master of the secret, of holding parts of herself back and though men from Meggie’s past dismiss Sabine as damaged and vulnerable, Meggie sees something more in her. Something infinitely worth physical and mental energy to pursue. She longs for Sabine to become a partner in her life, a best friend who can lift her sense of self out of its mundane rut.
This intense period of her life becomes defining, casts its shadows over who Meggie becomes, even though Sabine isn’t ever quite what Meggie presumes.
And amidst the complex unravelling of friendship’s influence on identity is a careful consideration of the layered ways in which we respond to our presumptions about others. Meggie is orginally from South Africa, Sabine from Belgium.
‘Relationships between people from different countries involve translation. And this I found liberating. But it could also obscure things. One acquaintance’s macho South African ways were given the kind of tolerance his feminist girlfriend would never accord a fellow Brit. Another’s impressive small-town nonconformism was lost in Soho’s mainstream.’ (p183)
Meggie wonders if Sabine represents the girls she longed to befriend at school but didn’t. In what way do friendships challenge, enhance and generate traits we don’t naturally have? Do we want to possess through friendship traits we lack? Are we willing to forgive things about others because they display character traits we wish we had?
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Thrilling, thought-provoking and acerbically clinical in its dissection of the many ways in which relationships infect our lives, Nightshift is a debut that promises even more wonderful writing to come. It will grip and provoke in equal measure. Out on the 18th February, preorder it now!
I’ll be reviewing Luckenbooth by Jenni Fagan next.