Full reviews of Things We Nearly Knew

Susan Osborne, A Life in Books, 10 January 2018
There’s nothing like getting your reading year off to a good start. Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew continues 2018’s satisfying trend for me with its slice of American smalltown life seen through the eyes of an unnamed bartender. I’d enjoyed Powell’s second novel, Trading Futures, a couple of years back, admiring its narrator’s waspishly funny inner monologue. His new novel is infused with a gentler humour, the themes it tackles much weightier and all the better for it.

Our narrator runs a bar with his wife Marcie on the edge of the small town he’s lived in all his life. He looks after the evening trade, she does the lunches. They’re the perfect professional combination: he knows how to keep secrets, which questions to ask and which to leave unasked; she knows how to interpret the answers. However, they differ wildly in their approaches to life: he wants things cut and dried; she grasps the messiness of it all. One day Arlene walks in, all glamour and sophistication, asking for a vodka martini and whether they’ve heard of a man named Jack. She becomes a regular, if an intermittent one, telling only the stories she wants to tell. Marcie and the bartender are intrigued. She begins a romance with one of the other regulars, more from mutual loneliness than any sense of passion. Then the roguish Franky turns up, not seen for thirty years but barely changed. It seems that Franky and Arlene are made for each other despite his distinctly flexible relationship with honesty. Marcie and the bartender lie in bed at nights mulling it all over but they have their own stories to tell – one which he has been determined to bury but she has not, and another he knows nothing about.

Questioning, speculating, interested in other people and their problems – although blind to his own troubles – Powell’s narrator is the consummate bartender complemented beautifully by the astute Marcie. It’s such a clever device: backstories abound and anecdotes are legion as befits the profession. The story unfolds beautifully through our narrator’s memories as he looks back on the nine months Arlene occupied her bar stool, telling us her tale while slipping in details of his seemingly prosaic marriage, less transparent than he might have thought. Powell’s characterisation is intelligent and perceptive, his writing more striking that I remembered it:

Arlene was someone who invited protection, then declined it when it was offered.

Marcie and I have no secrets from one another. We tell that to each other constantly, so it must be true

Later, we’d take off the masks we’d worn for the occasion, pack them away, and put on our usual masks the next morning.

Overarching it all is the question how well do we know those we think we know? How well do we even know ourselves? A thoroughly enjoyable piece of storytelling, well turned out in every sense. If the rest of 2018’s reading is as good as this I’ll be delighted.

Anthony Cummins, Daily Mail, 5 January 2018
If you didn’t know Jim Powell was British, you wouldn’t guess from this hard-boiled slice of Americana, narrated by the middle-aged owner of a Nowheresville bar.

At the start, he and his wife of 30 years are speculating about Arlene, a new regular who sets eyes twinkling and tongues wagging as she asks around for a man named Jack, letting nothing slip about why.

The ensuing guessing game threatens to dissolve into a shaggy-dog story – until the arrival of Franky Albertino, an old frenemy whose loose talk begins to make our narrator seem not only uncomfortable, but unreliable.

Powell’s previous novel, Trading Futures, described a City trader’s meltdown; this book, ostensibly a change of tack, ultimately turns on a similar theme of mid-life unspooling.

If it overcooks – just a bit – it makes up for it with a wry charm that grips you right to the sombre finish.

Ian Shine, Financial Times, 3 February 2018
“Things that never happened become as much facts as things that did,” says one of the cast of mystery-shrouded characters in Jim Powell’s engrossing third novel. Narrated by a bartender who sounds like a middle-aged Holden Caulfield, it is set mostly in his bar in a nondescript US town where rumour rather than rum proves intoxicating. Arlene arrives from nowhere one day looking for someone called Jack; ne’er-do-well Franky reappears after a long absence; Marcie, the narrator’s wife, has a grudge against Franky. The tales they weave about each other tie the reader in knots, and Powell enjoys pulling the bind tighter. “I know you want the loose ends tied up, but life’s a muddle.” Indeed.

Jackie Law, Bookmunch, 5 February 2018
Things We Nearly Knew explores the lives of the regular clientele at a bar in a small town in America. The narrator and his wife own and run the establishment. Over time the regulars come and go, people move on, circumstances change. The story told here is set over a nine month period which saw the arrival and departure of one such drinker.

Arlene first showed up in February. She ordered a vodka Martini and asked after a local man named Jack. With no surname to offer it wasn’t much to go on. She demonstrated a marked reluctance to share much about her history saying that she came from many places.

All the customers start out as strangers. The more often they visit the more facts can be gleaned. Still though, the narrator only knows whatever customers are willing to tell, or what others might say about them. How well can anyone know another person anyway?

Davy, for example, may or may not have been married. He has pictures of kids in his wallet but they might not be his, he has never said. More is known about Nelson who has lived in the town for many years, as have the bar owner and his wife, Marcie. They went to school with Mike, another regular but one they would describe as a friend. Later Franky will arrive, much to Marcie’s displeasure. He left under a cloud and she would have preferred if he had stayed away.

The men are drawn to Arlene with her red lips, dark hair and slinky dresses. Davy will become involved with her, as will Franky eventually. And then, after nine months she will leave for good, her tenure at the place a much mulled over memory.

The narrator did not always run a bar. Once he was a teacher. He and Marcie keep no secrets from each other, but no one shares everything about themselves.

There are glimpses of personal histories, teased out by the casual interest of the curious alongside a reluctance to fully engage. The middle aged are survivors of their past – there will always be elements they would prefer not to have to share. This is made harder when others talk freely of events, when they were also there.

The voice of the narrator is anecdotal with an undercurrent of regret. He is recounting the months at his bar which revolved around Arlene but with widening ripples. He and Marcie have been through a great deal together and will be affected by the fallout from these events. Some things may be better left unsaid.

The writing is concise with an almost abrasive view of human interactions. There is a distancing from emotion, a numbing of the senses. The mysteries are solved with an outlook of stoicism for the pain life brings, and leaves in its wake.

Any Cop?: This is a compelling read but a somewhat bleak perspective.

Leaf Arbuthnot, Sunday Times, 31 December 2017
British writer Jim Powell’s accessible third novel plays out in a scrubby bar on the edge of a middling American town whose residents’ main hobbies are gossip and boozing. Marcie and her placid husband run the drinking den and have been together 30 years; theirs is a quiet life choreographed by the shifts they work and scarred by the freak deaths years ago of their two children. One night a damaged beauty called Arlene blows into the bar hunting for a man named Jack. She becomes entangled in a grubby love triangle, threatening the fragile stability of Marcie’s marriage, after which the book revs into thriller mode as long-buried secrets about the town’s residents emerge. While the plot is expertly spun out, characters lapse too readily into cliché. It is an engrossing read but not a particularly nutritious one, and when the novel’s mysteries are finally revealed, they fail to impress.