Like all good writers, Stephen May is always alert to potential storylines that can present themselves almost subliminally.
This was the case with the subject matter of his latest novel We Don’t Die of Love. Published next week by Sandstone Press. it was partly inspired by what he had observed happening among some of his peers.
“I began noticing that long-term couples around me were splitting up, often people who had been together for ages,” he says. “There wasn’t necessarily an affair or bad behaviour involved and it was usually the woman’s decision the end the relationship. Then I started reading that most divorces today are initiated by the wives, particularly where people had been together for a long time. I saw this taking place around me and I thought it was a phenomenon worth exploring.”
At the heart of the novel is the breakdown of the 32-year marriage between fiftysomething former local journalist-turned-cafe owner Luke Greenwood and his wife Serena who announces one day out of the blue that she is leaving him for a much younger man. As Luke struggles to come to terms with his new domestic reality, his business – Earnshaws or Ernie’s to regulars – also comes under threat from shady ‘businessmen’ looking to make some easy money as developers begin to move in to the area.
Ernie’s is located in Stonebeck, a rundown but up-and-coming area of an unnamed city in the North of England. “That was the other major driver for me in writing this – I wanted to write something about the North,” says May who is based in West Yorkshire. “I have never really written about the North before. Although I have lived up here for 16 years now, I still feel very much of an outsider and I think that perhaps gives me enough distance to see things more clearly. Also I was particularly interested in those parts of big Northern cities that tend to be near the city centre but have been a bit ignored over the years and then begin to change as part of the gentrification process. That’s an interesting time to be around those places – when things are being pulled down in order for something new to grow.”
May draws the parallel between that kind of renewal and the opportunities for new beginnings after a relationship ends. For a novel about marriage breakdown, We Don’t Die of Love is nevertheless ultimately uplifting and hopeful. “I’m not interested in giving people hopelessness,” he says. “That’s not what, or why, I write. And I wanted to make sure there were also a few laughs along the way.” There are certainly plenty of those too. There is a natural, easy wit in May’s writing and for a southerner (he grew up in Bedfordshire) he’s very good on dry Northern humour. But what really stands out is the authenticity of the domestic dynamic. “Men don’t often write about families and I like to write about them,” he says. “The positive energy in society seems to be coming from women at the moment and men are sort of struggling to keep up. Luke is a bit adrift when his marriage ends, so the book is also about men trying to cope with a world they don’t quite understand.”
We Don’t Die of Love by Stephen May
Sandstone press, august 1, £7.99
yvette huddleston 4/5
Stephen May’s latest novel mines the tensions of family dynamics in a beautifully nuanced and often gently humorous way, while acknowledging the heartache we inflict on those closest to us.
May’s protagonist Luke Greenwood is an ex-local journalist in his late 50s in what he thought was a stable and loving marriage. Then his wife of 32 years, Selena, announces she is leaving him for a much younger man. Not surprisingly, Luke is thrown into crisis – at first he is angry, while at the same time trying to smooth things over for the sake of his two grown-up children Grace and Charlie, then bewildered, wondering if he is to blame for the breakdown of the relationship. Just to add to Luke’s troubles, his business – a traditional greasy spoon caff in a gritty, ripe-for-development area of an unnamed Northern city – has come to the attention of local gangsters who are prepared to go to any lengths to force him to sell.
May is so good on the small details of domestic life – the spats, the in-jokes, the unexpected joys – and understands how much the ebb and flow of everyday routine contributes to our wellbeing and sense of self. All the characters and the various relationships between them – marital, parental, romantic, workplace – are entirely authentic. Throughtful, funny – and very human, this is a hugely enjoyable and rewarding read.