Glimpses of the private I

The Guardian

It is perhaps appropriate in a novel dealing largely with the theme of secrecy that the title, “What I Know”, reveals so little. The protagonist, Mike, says of Jan, his wife: “I am not the person she believes me to be. Not quite.” When he tracks down the woman with whom he has been obsessed for two decades, her verdict is: “We used to know each other.” The characters in this novel are middle-class, suburban, reasonably well-off, reasonably well-intentioned and more than a little bored. They could not be more ordinary. And what they know about each other, about themselves and about their spouses, is very little. Mike is a private investigator of the grubby, realistic sort, who spends his life snooping on fraudulent insurance claimants. The novel opens with his 40th birthday, which triggers in him a crisis of self-doubt, causing him to turn his weapons on himself and to start spying on his own hidden desires and those of his family. He becomes particularly fixated on a girlfriend from his youth, Sarah, about whom he has never been able to stop fantasising.

Bored by his life of desultory suburban barbecues and school sports days, Mike becomes increasingly obsessed with Sarah, who comes to represent for him an exciting, alternative life that he feels he could have lived had he stayed with her. Equally, as his friendship develops with a moderately successful novelist neighbour, Will, it begins to seem as if Will, too, represents an alternative life that Mike once wanted for himself. When Sarah was his girlfriend, we discover, Mike thought he would become a writer, a hope that came to an end with the heartbreak that accompanied the termination of that relationship. The most bizarre twist of all is that when Will leaves his wife - again doing precisely what Mike fantasises about - Mike begins to suspect that this is because he is having an affair with Jan. In other words, the projection of Mike’s fantasy life appears to fall in love with the very woman to whom Mike is unhappily married.

Meanwhile, there are several hints that Will is also a version of Andrew Cowan, with occasional references to Will’s novels acting as a self-deprecating commentary on Cowan’s work in general and on this novel in particular. At a party, Will describes his work as “nothing special, really; English provincial realism”. Everything on the surface of this novel is utterly normal, banal almost, but the closer you look, the more elusive, strange and complex the book becomes. It may be in the guise of English provincial realism, but it is in fact an emotionally and philosophically rich existential private eye novel. It is in another comment about Will’s work that What I Know comes closest to declaring its true intent. We are told

that Will’s books deal with “whether the effort to stay ‘true’ to those who most love us - or simply depend on us - means we must then betray some deeper truth in ourselves, and whether such faithfulness is admirable, or in some degree pitiable”.

This question is at the heart of every marriage and, as such, is the key to the happiness or unhappiness of most of our lives. Slowly, with great subtlety and skill, Cowan creeps up on this question and explores the private battles that rage silently in every home. In its quiet, lugubrious way, this novel takes a scalpel to the very closest of relationships, showing us how much we hide, and how lost we’d be without the very secrecies we like to pretend don’t exist. “The prospects for any long-lasting marriage,” Mike tells us, “depend as much on what is withheld as what is revealed. However much a couple might share, it’s what little they don’t know about each other that will lend their life interest.” Cowan appears to suggest that these areas of secrecy and ignorance are carefully, if silently, negotiated between a couple. In the course of his mid-life crisis, Mike’s project is to break this truce and to see what effect this has on the marriage. Intimacy and secrecy are usually perceived as enemies. In this novel, Cowan suggests that they are in fact the closest of companions. If we really did know everything about the people we love, our intimacy would be destroyed.

Cowan’s greatest achievement is that he welds this emotional and intellectual acuity to a breezy, intensely readable style. What I Know, unlike those novels that will no doubt sail past it on to the Booker shortlist, never picks up the look-how-clever-I-am megaphone. But as anyone who has ever been to a suburban barbecue knows, the most interesting person at the party probably isn’t the man in the Hawaiian shirt wielding the tongs; it’s the quiet guy in the corner in saggy jeans and an ill-fitting T-shirt.