There are three narrative strands in The Shape of Her, Rowan Somerville’s second novel. The main one takes place in the present day, and concerns a young couple, Max and Tine, who are spending the summer together on the Greek island where Tine holidayed as a child. All begins happily, as Max particularly is full of the joys of young love; but Tine grows standoffish, and it becomes apparent that the secrets of the past may be about to resurface. The two other strands delve into the protagonists’ childhoods – specifically Tine’s holidays on the island, and Max’s time at boarding school – to explore what’s behind the events of the present, before everything converges at the end…
I’m torn, here: I think some aspects of The Shape of Her are very good, but then I have reservations about the whole. On the plus side, Somerville has a deft turn of phrase; for example, one image that stood out to me was when Max and Tine were described as sitting on their plane, drinking ‘brackish coffee from cups the colour of prosthetic limbs’ – I find this such an unexpected comparison, yet it works so well in conveying just what those cups of coffee must look and taste like, and the atmosphere in which they’re being drunk. Also, the three plot-lines contrast each other well, as we gain a very different view of the two protagonists – Tine’s first-person voice when narrating her memories is much spikier than Max’s love-struck view of her might lead one to anticipate; and Max was almost a completely different person at school, a sense only added to by the use of his surname in that strand.
With so much that’s good, why the reservations? It’s the resolution of the three narratives that doesn’t quite work for me. The two childhood strands inform the ending of the present-day one in a way that seems to me to reduce their own intrinsic interest – as though the main focus is on what they can give to the contemporary narrative, and less on what they might offer in their own right. But, even if the destination of The Shape of Her may not be everything one might hope for, the journey is still an interesting one to make.