At first, I wrongly suspected a touch of Bridget Jones themes with academic undertones in this novel. However, the author has a crafted a completely different style that engages excellently with the sometimes over used theme of ‘single woman is dumped and then life spirals out of control.’ But where others have failed often appallingly Ruth Thomas succeeds in creating a wonderful new character that we can all embrace,
Sybil (and names are relevant here with classical connections throughout) loses her head (almost literally) after an ice rink accident reveals some home truths. Ho her errant boyfriend Simon is betraying her with Sybil’s past hated nemesis of an ex -tutor Helen from University who has wormed her nasty little self into Sybil’s workplace. Rather than placed in a media hyped 21st century office I loved Sybil’s world within the dusty floors of the Royal Institute of Prehistorical Studies (RIPS – apart perhaps by Helen?) I too love history and literature – two themes that seep into the pages either through Sybil untangling the blatant egotistical Helen striding into her mind and boyfriend’s bed and overwhelming her or friends and often eccentric colleagues to regain her grip on life through poetry classes – well I love that sort of thing why shouldn’t Sybil!?
In fact, I was entranced by how my own life seemed to be following Sybil’s. No, I hadn’t been dumped by a boyfriend, but had struggled some years back when my husband died and used a journal to write down my daily moods and general turmoil all round and what life then presented to me with snippets of books and poetry, and then this year I had determined to read up on Greek myths and try and get to grips with all those gods and ancient civilisations. Weirdly I am currently reading about Ariadne and how she assists Theseus to kill the Minotaur at Knossos in Crete when up pops dear Raglan (one of my favourite characters in the book) reviewing not only his academic muse but his personal tragedy.
The writing is skilful, and although on the surface fun and flippant with sharp dialogue. In some respects it might appear to a casual reader a bit trivial but there is genuine literary depth to the plot with layers being uncovered, much like the careful digging and brushing to uncover archaeological finds in the deep soil probably in Norfolk or Sussex! I had thought the book was about commuting when I saw the title and although that isn’t the main focus, how Sybil moves around London is revealed in the glorious little observations on the tube/train or bus towards fellow passengers that can make of the individuals they meet and a the strange incidents that can occur a whole new world. The visit to the hairdressers by Sybil is one so many women can surely find similarities with – it’s always somehow an ordeal and leaves the most confident out of their comfort zone! Look out for the teacup as well, a beautiful metaphor brought to life for Sybil.
I also learnt a lot about some aspects of prehistory and about the less known female archaeologist Mary Anning who pops up through the book and in real life today is hopefully being recognised by a campaign to erect a statue in her honour in Lyme Regis – the Jurassic coast of significance in Dorset. From the British Museum to Greece – all historic bases are covered wonderfully. Oh, to be able to travel once again and see classical sites once more!
A delight of a book as a personal read that leaves positive and heart -warming emotions in its wake. Thanks to Sandstone Press for sending me an advance reading copy. The book is being serialised on Radio 4 Book at Bedtime so worth a listen too as well.
I think book groups will be entranced by Sybil. It seems to follow the path of Eleanor Oliphant but will have deeper resonance for a wider audience.
I too try my hand at poetry and love haikus a lot! So, to end:
Sybil is no object
waiting to be indexed here
she loves classic life
Published 14th January 2021 by Sandstone Press
Paperback ISBN 978-1-913207-36-6
Review by Philipa Coughlan, head here to read Philipa’s interview with Ruth Thomas