Claire is a young Englishwoman, raised in Lancashire and recently graduated from Oxford. As the story opens, she is living in Troubles-era Belfast, working in a pub and recently estranged from a lover. The narrative shifts back in forth in time to reconstruct how Claire has ended up here, finally showing how she might move forward.
You know Claire is damaged goods from the word go, as the very first scene shows her perched on the edge of the bathtub, methodically cutting herself with a razor blade. Hearing someone come into the house, she hastily hides the evidence of her self-mutilating activity, and gets on with her day. Adrift on the currents of daily life, Claire is naive and awkward on the job, aimless and unsure everywhere else. We learn that she moved to Belfast with her boyfriend Alan from Oxford, and that this relationship has recently ended. Claire succumbs to her longing to sleep with handsome pub regular Paul, then – horrified at the implications, since he is her roommate’s boyfriend and an old friend of Alan’s – she flees across the water to seek some comfort back in her Lancashire hometown.
Now the listener gets transported back to Oxford, to the occasion of Claire’s meeting Alan, and how they got involved. Alan is pretty despicable, and Claire was already hopeless, even back then. We are privy to some narrative from Alan’s point of view, which helps to explain – though not mitigate – the way he acts. He is just as damaged as Claire, without the benefit of self-mutilation as a convenient outward sign. Because so many times these things “just happen,” Claire and Alan become lovers, despite the fact that they really don’t seem to like each other much, and when Alan accepts an academic post in his hometown of Belfast, Claire moves there with him. From there, it all goes downhill quickly.
There is, as I said, a lot of chronological back and forth in the telling of Claire’s story, and I found it difficult at times to determine whether the narrative was in the past or the present. This is a particular pitfall of audiobook listening, and I’m not sure there is really a remedy for it. It did make for rough going at times. However, as the gap closed between the story of the past and the present day, everything began to settle into place.
Offcomer is a Bildungsroman with a protagonist who should be painfully familiar to anyone who has ever been a young woman. Her eye turned relentlessly inward on herself, Claire is brutally self-critical while at the same time having difficulty believing that she actually exists. Nicola Barber is an excellent choice as the voice of this passive, self-obliterating ingenue. She is also quite handy with the Northern Irish accents of the other characters.
This is the kind of book in which not a whole lot happens of substance, and it’s all about slow character development through a lot of navel-gazing and vivid sensory detail. Offcomer is beautifully written, though, and when the penny does finally drop for Claire, when some revelatory encounters with her family and with her childhood friend Jennifer finally make her begin to wake up, the upward lift of her future prospects makes for a satisfying conclusion.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.