The Unfortunates by Sophie McManus is a stunningly self-assured debut that rewards its readers with a highly polished gem of a book. This contemporary novel, told over the course of one year, assumes the qualities of a novel of epic scope through its author’s skillful telling.
The emotional heart of The Unfortunates is the character Iris, whose struggles for decency and self-respect are in constant danger of being overwhelmed by the actions of her husband and mother-in-law. The dramatic tension derives from the intersection of those three lives: George and Iris, a couple contemplating the possibilities of their future, and George’s mother CeCe who is confronting the limits of hers.
Ms. McManus’s eye for telling details of location and character - each drawn with the meticulous detail of a photorealistic painter - make them instantly recognizable even as she pulls back the curtain of normalcy to reveal the unexpected secrets that lurk beneath the surface. Even minor characters - a groundskeeper, the partner of Iris’s masseuse, George’s drinking buddy - are written with such care that they come alive on the page.
One thread that’s woven through the story is an opera called “The Burning Papers.” It is George’s obsessive composition, which sounds to his mother like “a train hitting a merry-go-round. It sounds like the very incarnation of atrocity. The instrumental is both gastric and inorganic. The discordant principals’ duet is like the nocturnal emission of a cancerous horse tethered in its dolorous slumber to a barbed wire aluminum fence during an electrical storm.” It sounds horrible enough to be fascinating.
As wonderful as the writing is, the more impressive feat to me is the storytelling. There are a few writers who can string together their words with such skill but far fewer who can do it with the empathy and wit on display in this book. The reader’s investment in the characters’ lives can’t help but force us to decide for ourselves what makes a life fortunate or unfortunate.
It has been my good fortune to attend readings of Ms. McManus’s work and if you have the opportunity to do so, I would recommend it. But my stronger recommendation is a simple one: buy this book.