Everyone Is Still Alive by Cathy Rentzenbrink review – the road to redemption

Cathy Rentzenbrink is the author of one of the most powerful memoirs of the past decade. The Last Act of Love told of the accident that left her brother in a decade-long coma, the long shadow cast on her life, the grief and guilt that haunted her. She followed that book with A Manual for Heartache, a Matt Haig-ish miscellany offering succour to the grieving, a series of nuggets of wisdom and comfort for times of trouble. Haig is an interesting point of reference for Rentzenbrink: he was a novelist who moved effortlessly into nonfiction. Now Rentzenbrink has taken the opposite path, publishing her first novel, Everyone Is Still Alive.

Juliet and Liam have moved from trendy east London to Magnolia Road, a leafy and genteel street in Hammersmith, west London. Juliet’s mother has died, and she and Liam, who is an author, move into her mother’s house with their child, Charlie. Liam worries that “Magnolia Road is a bit square, a bit posh, a bit heteronormative, not the sort of place he imagines a hip young writer should live.” Soon, though, he falls in with the “Magnolia Wives”, the mums at Charlie’s school. There’s the “wise woman”, Sarah, there’s the perennially disappointed Helen, and there’s Lucy, whose husband, Bas, is possibly cheating on her. It’s a privileged world, hellishly so, where marriages are full of mistrust and disappointment, where children are tormented by the ambitions and neuroses of their parents, where money and status are everything.

An accident takes centre stage in this book, too. Three-quarters of the way through, a child is injured, and we feel that the novel might be heading off into dramatically different territory. What started as a waspish satire on London life shifts gear into tragedy. I wonder if it is a reflection of Rentzenbrink’s own past sorrows that the jeopardy is resolved so swiftly, that the reader doesn’t have to wait long before returning to the first-world problems of Magnolia Road.

The interjection of real life does change something, though, because following the accident a kind of warmth suffuses the book, and we begin to see the characters in a new light. People who at first seemed like monsters, caricatures fawning over their Bellas, Felixes and Leos, suddenly flesh out into fully formed humans. We recognise that this is a book about going to new places and the fear of new people, but also about the comfort of community, the way that even a place like Magnolia Road can be a source of the kind of friendship and support that gets you through even the darkest times.

Everyone Is Still Alive by Cathy Rentzenbrink is published by Orion (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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