“Picture yourself in one of your cross-country races. It’s a hard pace this day. Everyone’s outrunning you. You’re tired, you didn’t sleep enough, you’re hungry, your head is down, you’re preparing for defeat. You want much from life, and life will give you much, but there are things it won’t give you, and victory today is one of them. This will be one defeat; more will follow. Victories will follow too. You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and to be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not.”
I’ve read many fiction stories. I’ve written a few fiction stories myself. When I’m reading, I’m often conscious of the fact that these characters are mere creations of people’s imaginations. When the writing is done well, you can forget that this is a fact, and learn to love these fictional characters as you would any other living, breathing human being. What Matthew Thomas has done in We Are Not Ourselves is create by far the most realistic set of characters I have ever come across, in the entirety of my life.
I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. I’m often intimidated by it. So, when going into this book, I had a very open mind. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Halfway through the book, though, I realized how much this story had, and would still, affect me. There were many reasons for this.
The novel follows Eileen Tumulty, an Irish girl living in Queens. She’s very young when the story opens up. The reader is able to learn about her childhood and growing up with alcoholic parents who sleep in separate bedrooms. Eileen later marries Ed Leary, a rather odd scientist with a promising future. Eileen narrates six decades of her life, filled with all-too-real struggles.
Eileen is human. Entirely too human. I was able to see her grow and change and think every step of the way. She is by no means perfect, or even close to it, but that is her charm. She is a materialistic woman with a vault full of dreams and expectations. She wants to squeeze the world dry of everything it has to offer. Eileen is selfish and prideful and close-minded, but she is real.
Patience. The best word to describe this book is patience. It took the author a decade to write this book, by hand. I assume patience was the key part in that endeavor. While reading, I had patience as I lived every moment alongside the three main characters. Every character had to be patient at one point or another, because life wasn’t patient with them. Life didn’t wait for them, so they had to learn to be patient on their own. Reading this book requires patience, but the journey is definitely worth every minute spent reading it.
Furthermore, I related to this book on a personal level. Mental illness is one of the main focuses in the story, and I have more than enough experience in my life to know how messy it can be when a family member suffers from them. As I read, I reflected on my childhood, on my grandparents, on my achievements, and my disappointments. I also considered the future far more than I’m comfortable with. I allowed myself to think of the future without putting up any mental walls, and I was afraid. Terrified. This life is short and unexpected. And my deepest fear is to build relationships with those around me. Any type of relationship I build adds to a stress pile. But I am grateful for the ones that I have, with my friends and my family.
That is the point of this book. Human relationships. Partnerships. Love. We are not ourselves. We are organisms capable of loving and supporting one another through adversity. A little cliche, but I like to believe in this. I like to think that life matters, not because we achieve financial success or accumulate goods. Life matters because we leave a trace after we leave this world on the people that we love.