THE END OF LONELINESS by Benedict Wells
translated by Charlotte Collins
Penguin Books, January 29, 2019
Well, this utterly wrecked me. What a beautiful book.
The End of Loneliness, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, follows three siblings growing up in Munich, whose parents die in a car accident, leaving them orphaned and forced to attend boarding school. The focus is on Jules, the youngest sibling, who’s more of an observer than a participant in his own life; after his parents’ death he turns inward and fixates on a parallel narrative that he’s crafted of what his life would have been like had they survived. At boarding school he meets Alva, another loner who he’s able to connect with as he and his siblings grow apart, but after school they lose touch and Jules is once more on his own.
With a focus on the complex dynamics between the three siblings, Benedict Wells deftly explores the ripple effect of loss and grief. He also plays with the fallibility of memory in a way that recalls Kazuo Ishiguro, as Jules is recounting events from his childhood years later, and eventually certain cracks begin to form in his carefully curated narrative that suggest he may have chosen to remember certain events in a way that was convenient to him. This is a deeply melancholy book that gives little respite in its misery, but I found its emotional honesty refreshing. And with Jules’ retrospective narration, the grief discussed feels more like a bruise than an open wound (it’s a painful book to read, but not as visceral as something like A Little Life). It did bring me to tears at one point, but it wasn’t the kind of painful that I lost sleep over; it’s more of a quiet kind of haunting that slowly seeps under your skin.
My one criticism is that the end gets a bit twee and Wells insists on wrapping everything up a bit too neatly; maybe he’s playing with the idea that one of the characters floats around, that life is a zero-sum game; maybe he thinks his characters have all suffered enough to have earned a neat ending. But as a reader I ironically feel less fulfilled with the more closure I get, so I would have preferred things to end on a slightly more somber note. 4.5 stars – rounded down for now but maybe I’ll change it depending on how this stays with me.
Also – my advice going into this book is to avoid reading the Goodreads summary if possible (or maybe just read the first paragraph), as it essentially gives a paint by numbers account of the entire plot. It’s not that I felt spoiled while reading – it’s more driven by character than plot anyway – but it’s just unnecessary to give that much away when the book is less than 300 pages to begin with.
Thank you to Netgalley and Penguin Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.