The Bit In Between by Claire Varley

In brief: Oliver and Alison meet in amusing but unfortunate circumstances. Thrown together, they fall in love and move to the Solomon Islands. This is the part that comes next…

The good: Really funny in places.

The not-so-good: Really didn’t expect that ending!

Why I chose it: Thanks to Pan Macmillan Australia for the copy.

Year: 2015

Pages: 265

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia

Setting: Mainly the Solomon Islands and Australia

My rating: 7.5 out of 10

The Bit In Between by Claire Varley asks the question, what happens after the initial flush of giddy romance and lust is over in a relationship? How can you get to the happily ever after? Will your relationship even make it that far? In need of a good dose of reality in my next read, I picked this book up not really knowing what to expect – was it going to be serious and reflective? But after seeing how Oliver and Alison meet (she throws up on him in an airport after downing an entire jar of sundried tomatoes to prove a point at Customs), I knew that this book would have a quirky side to make me grin in places. Varley’s manuscript was picked up by Pan Macmillan from the slush pile, so I knew that there would be something special in the story.

In fact, there are quite a lot of great moments in the story. Varley has a talent for romantic comedy (the airport vomit scene is only the tip of the iceberg) but can also detail sensitive moments well. What I loved about The Bit In Between is that it’s not just Oliver and Alison’s story. The minor characters that they come into contact with also get a moment to tell their story, what haunts them or what makes them happy. It’s like people watching but with the ability to read minds. Varley captures that minor character and succinctly tells the reader something that lifts them from the person in the street to a real person with hopes and dreams. Varley is just as strong when it comes to characterisation – Oliver and Alison are nicely fleshed out with their strengths and concerns. (Oliver is a writer with one successful book behind him, however he’s distressed that he was forced to change the ending to a happy one. His new book will be on his own unhappy terms, if only he could get the words on to the page. Alison’s somewhat of a drifter and her spontaneous nature has found her travelling for love on numerous occasions. But she feels the need to create and leave her mark on the world).

The plot of The Bit In Between is quite simple, but executed well in a more unusual setting. Caught up in the first flush of love, Oliver and Alison decide to live in the Solomon Islands while he writes his book. A tropical paradise sounds wonderfully romantic, but they are soon caught up in reality – the monotony of housework and being in each other’s pockets. Yet it is the making of Alison as she makes friends and starts to help young women get jobs, write resumes and improve their English. It’s Oliver that is left in the same world, alone in the house all day. When he tries to make friends, it’s the opportunity to meet some of the quirkier members of the expat community. There’s also some interesting subplots with the appearance of Alison’s ex-boyfriend, Ed and Oliver starting to worry that the narrative of his book is guiding his and Alison’s real lives. This last part didn’t really work as well for me because I didn’t feel it fit in with the other themes of the story. The ending of the story was also not what I’d expected, but in a good way. I liked the reality and the hope that it left for the reader. Some might think it’s a letdown, but for me it was just one of these things that happens in real life.

The setting of the Solomon Islands was also interesting – it’s not a place I’d read about in fiction before and learning more about the people and their way of living (especially through the minor character vignettes) made me realise how little I knew about it. The expat behaviour was a nice juxtaposition and helped with the theme of feeling lost, a kind of ‘what next?’. The writing is honest but it’s characterisation where Claire Varley shines in her debut novel. This is a great new read that will have you chuckling and crying in places.

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