Despite the fact that Glen Duncan’s novel Love Remains is only 277 pages long, it took me about a month to finish because I could never read any more than a few pages at a time before my head started to swim. But I mean that as a compliment rather than a criticism. Duncan is a well-known and much-praised British author who was new to me when I purchased the book. Love Remains, Duncan’s second novel, is almost relentlessly grim. Again – it’s a compliment, honest. There’s no way you could tackle the topic Duncan does in this book without being a skillful craftsman, and Duncan really is an amazing writer.
Nick and Chloe meet in university.
The possibility of love revealed itself to Chloe immediately, in a shock. When they sat opposite each other that first Wednesday, with rain streaking the steamed windows and the delicious reek of frying bacon in the air, she felt (thinking, stunned, of the billions who had felt it, down the long bloodied canvas of history) the first murderous utterance of romance: It’s him.
Nick’s feelings for Chloe are slightly more ambivalent, although he does concede that “he was so curious about what was going on inside her that lust only followed along afterwards, like an obligatory bit of luggage.”
The trajectory of Chloe and Nick’s love story is mostly straightforward. They get married, start jobs, eventually move into “their first proper home” in Clapham and then, as with many marriages, the romantic impetus drains from their lives as they deal with life’s mundane and often inane decisions: “Do you think we should get a futon, Nick.” As their marriage closes in around them, “They suffered, periodically, the ache of familiarity.” Chloe feels “suffocated by the sound of his breath escaping through his nostrils” and Nick “hated her for having finished the shape of him.”
Duncan masterfully builds a marriage from the ground up and then, just as masterfully, wrenches it apart in the most violent way possible. In some ways, it’s almost as though Duncan has written two different, but equally compelling, novels.
When the novel opens, Nick has already left London because that’s what you do “when the future ended.” He is on a journey, it seems, of self-destruction comprised of smoking, drinking and having sadomasochistic sex. None of it makes sense until we learn what has happened to Chloe and, even then, it’d difficult to wrap your head around. Is Nick reprehensible for having abandoned his wife? That’s just one of the moral questions Duncan asks you to consider in this book.
Chloe is on a journey of her own. It is equally compelling, although perhaps more heartbreaking. The random and horrific experience she has endured has sharpened her: “Her face in the mirror, barely recognizable, rewritten.”
What was once a path traveled together, has now been cleaved. I commend Duncan for resisting the urge to offer a tidy ending, but the ending, nonetheless, is remarkable.