Campbell’s language is striking, though for every applaudable image (tree roots ‘knuckling up through paving slabs’) there are head-scratchers, such as ‘in the meat-air of ourselves’ or ‘a huge vacantly vibratory ether’; and when a sex scene ends with her husband coming ‘with whoops’ it took me a minute to parse. Language needs to be made fresh — as Bennett, Burns and McBride do — but here it often seems affected, not intrinsic to Alannah’s way of seeing the world.
From its nicely ambiguous title onwards, This Happy is a layered and vibrant debut. Campbell is great on setting, which allows her to switch between times and locations without confusing the reader. The novel is full of sensual, offbeat descriptions: “The night was still and otherworldly, smelling strongly of the sea, the several smells of the sea heaped or stepped and distinct – canine, decaying, bodily.”
Characterisation is another strength. Here is Alannah on Harry: “[He] was a man of the world, half feral and adaptable in the way of the truly rootless, mildly amoral cosmopolitan.” On her husband: “My husband was always late. He proposed to me, really, to get out of being held accountable, one evening, for being late – to get out of being held accountable for this and other things.” And on her father, in a memorable moment of clarity where she sees his narcissistic chatter for what it really is: “My father was frightened of me. He could not let me get a word in because what, in the world, might I say?”
Such “bright but broke” characters, despite their alarming self-awareness, have a tendency to treat their unhappy situations as something that has happened to them, and to discount their own poor decisions. This Happy’s retrospective narration allows Alannah to accept responsibility gradually for her past actions, ultimately making her a fuller, more satisfying character than others of this ilk. It’s easy to forgive Campbell, then, for sometimes taking a meandering route to tell what turns out to be a quietly exhilarating story.
This is a novel of psychological texture; you’re reading for character, not for plot. There’s a beguiling shape to Alannah’s thoughts, warped by feelings and memories. Once upon a time, in love with Harry, she felt “jinxed out of syntax”. She wrestles her heart into words, but does it cleverly. When her husband touches her back: “Always this hardly calculated gesture of proprietorship has felt authentically, absorbingly, erotic to me.” This Happy isn’t perfectly pitched. Some parts are too fond of excess.