Alice is heartbroken and lonely, recently returned to her family home and the elder sisters to whom she has never really felt related, to be by her dying father’s side. Daniel is similarly heartbroken; homeless and alone his is desperately searching London’s streets for the illegitimate daughter he has never known. In Sarah Butler’s début, Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love, it is the death of Alice’s father that brings this seemingly disconnected pair together, changing both of their lives.
A novel about love and loss, Butler says Ten Things was borne out of her own heartbreak. “This is the third novel that I’ve completed, and the other two were slightly more difficult in terms of finding the story, but with this one I had just had a massive relationship breakdown, so I was a bit mental at the time, and I went on a writing course and this book just turned up. It is the only way I can describe it. I knew the characters' names and what would happen. It took time to find their voices, but the heart of the novel was always there, which was delightful.
“Retrospectively, I can see a lot of it has to do with that break-up and having to move between friends’ houses in London. I was interested in what happens when a parent dies and the children then become the older generation, and the crisis within that. When I started it, I was grieving for a relationship that had ended, and so it was a way of exploring all of that.”
Told alternatively from Alice and Daniel’s point of view, the two different voices in the novel are expertly drawn. The characters share many characteristics; distant from the world around them they are both haunted by words that have gone unsaid, and “their relationship is at the core of the novel for me” says Butler. “The story came to me pretty complete, but I loved the process of finding their different voices. Daniel took me nearly a year to get to a place where I felt I had his voice right.”
In many respects, Ten Things is also a love letter to London—homeless Daniel wanders the city’s streets, moving from the regeneration of east London, to the old-world suburban houses of Hampstead. Daniel’s homelessness contrasts beautifully with Alice’s sense of unease in her childhood home; something that interests Butler, who has recently finished an MA in Urban Studies, immensely.
“I set myself up as freelance in 2006 looking at regeneration, so I’ve done lots of projects along those lines in London and while writing this I felt like it was the first time all of that work came together within my writing. London is just an extraordinary city and I wanted to find a way to write about it, that wasn’t in a traditional—and I’m not wanting to be completely sexist—male, gritty, psycho-geographical way.
“I’m very interested in how easy it is for my generation to travel, it’s quite easy for us just to run away. And although that is not necessarily a bad thing, lots of the work I do—with arts projects, and participatory work within communities that are experiencing regeneration—means that I’ve been having conversations for years about how we connect to places. For me, I was really interested in that idea of feeling at home, without a physical house and alternatively feeling not at home, despite having a physical house.”
Ten Things has been described as in line with the novels of Maggie O’ Farrell, Anne Tyler and Alice Munro, who happens to be Butler’s “absolute hero”. “When you’re writing about the complexities of family life, rather than big thrillers, it can be hard not to be put into the quiet corner. But I’ve been writing seriously for 10 years, and so it feels good to feel like you’ve tried really bloody hard and that actually this book is the best book I could have written and I’m really proud of it.”
Ten Things I've Learnt About Love by Sarah Butler is out now, published by Picador.