Sweet Sorrow
David Nicholls
Hodder & Stoughton, £20
Review by Alastair Mabbott

AT one point in Sweet Sorrow, I almost put the book down to go and dig up the Pulp song David’s Last Summer, so strongly did Nicholls’ new novel evoke its elegiac mood of a summer that felt like a nostalgic memory even while it lasted. So it was nice to find out at the end that the song had actually been a major inspiration for the book.

Pulp compressed those powerful emotions into a track almost hidden away at the tail-end of an album. Sweet Sorrow, on the other hand, is a small story which takes a big 400-page book to tell. But Nicholls’ ability to remember what it was like to be young and vividly recreate it many years later ensures that it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

A 16-year-old from an uninspiring small town in the south of England, Charlie Lewis finishes school in 1997 having made a complete mess of his exams because of the stress he’s under at home. His jazz-obsessed father’s record shop has collapsed and his mother and younger sister have gone off to live with another man, leaving Charlie and his devastated dad trying to keep up a semblance of normality.

With no prospects and just a part-time job in a petrol station, all Charlie has is his mates, and their non-stop banter and rough-housing falls far short of the supportive friendship he needs. It’s dawning on him that all he was known for at school was hanging out with a laddish crew who inflicted cruel nicknames on anyone swotty or different.

Early on in the holidays, he’s out on his bike when he happens across a theatre company rehearsing a production of Romeo and Juliet in the grounds of a manor. He falls for the posh Fran Fisher, who plays Juliet, and is so smitten with her that he allows himself to get swept along and cast in a small part. So, while wooing Fran with jokes and hapless charm, he’s drawn into the company of a new crowd, the kind of arty types that, before now, he and his mates would have treated with derision. He’s certainly moving on from who he was, but it’s unclear what he’s becoming.

Nicholls, who drew on his youthful theatrical experience for his second novel, The Understudy, knows what it’s like to be a bit-part player watching others get all the glory. In Charlie, he’s created a relatable character who sees himself as one of life’s natural supporting players and will be stuck in that role until he breaks free of other people’s dreams and finds one of his own.

Nicholls is in his element here, dealing with young people striving to find an identity while tentatively exploring the mysteries of love and the responsibilities of being a grown-up. Abounding in uncertainty, clumsiness and communications breakdowns, it’s an assured romance and coming-of-age novel that everyone should identify with on some level, especially those who have themselves felt like supporting characters in other people’s lives.