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This is Between Us
By Kevin Sampsell
Tin House Books
Reviewed by Travis Fortney
This is Between Us is a beautiful novel that functions as something like a five-year slice-of-life, capturing the sexual relationship between of pair of aging hipsters in Portland. Author Kevin Sampsell uses a somewhat experimental style, wherein the confessional first person narrator is writing to his beloved--hence, the two characters are referred to throughout as "you" and "I". Also, the story is told in a series of short vignettes, one or two page scenes that don't necessarily conform to a discernible plot arc. But the stylistic flourishes feel natural. The use of the second person has the effect of drawing the reader in rather than pushing us away, and the vignettes connote the randomness of memory. For me, the narrator's need to put this romance to paper added an element of urgency.
We meet You and I just as their romance is taking off in earnest. They met when they were both married to other people, and now they're both recently divorced. They have one child apiece, Vince and Maxine. In the first year of their relationship, You and I are on fire for each other, and it's not without some difficulty that they manage to merge their lives into a somewhat conventional two-parent household. In the second year, they're still learning the ins and outs of each other. By the end of the third year the fire has waned a bit, and another reassessment is required. They fight, have sex in strange places, break up, get back together, visit a couples therapist, raise their children, watch movies, read books, and never stop going to brunch. The male half of the relationship has a character tic where he cries at the drop of a hat, and it gets worse as he gets older. He also has history of bisexuality, and the biggest threat to the relationship comes in the form of "you's" seductive younger brother. The narrator's son Vince has an invisible friend that he keeps until he's a teenager. What all of this is heading toward--whether they'll make it or not--is what the novel relies on for suspense. I won't say more because I don't want to spoil it, but suffice to say the ending of the book felt spot-on to me, in the way that it provided some emotional release and deepened everything that came before it--understated, sure, but nearly perfect. It's not often that I read a book and think the author got the ending so right.
Here's the thing. Some novels manage to seep under the skin, take on their own lives inside of you, and creep back out later as a kind of memory, something that your subconscious mind is telling you that you've experienced but still have to work the kinks out of to fully understand. I'm glad I read this novel last week and waited until today to review it, because I ended up liking it quite a bit more after letting it settle for a few days. The only other novel I've read this year that's had this effect on me--and I wasn't expecting it to at the time--is James Salter's All That Is. I'm aware that the two novels seem very dissimilar, but Sampsell's prose washes over you in a way that's similar to Salter's. Sampsell's novel, like Salter's, feels unrushed. You get the sense that the narrator of both novels feels like what they have to say is worth saying the right way. Both novels are frank and honest, and both feature characters that are preoccupied, in very different ways, with understanding the ineffable--in the case of Sampsell's novel, the person the narrator shares his bed with, and in the case of Salter's the mysterious beauty in the arc of a life. The two books are also linked by the copious amounts of sex writing in each, which some readers might at times find cringe-worthy, but which I thought added to the feeling of openness.
Perhaps the most shocking revelation in This is Between Us came just after I finished reading it, when I was looking over the cover matter and saw that this is Kevin Sampsell's debut novel. It's shocking because Sampsell writes like a seasoned pro, and also because I've been aware of the author for many years now and was under the impression that he had long ago made good on his considerable potential. This is Between Us is a remarkable accomplishment, and I hope Sampsell the novelist has a whole shelf of books he's yet to write.
This is Between Us is being released this week by Tin House Books in Portland, Oregon.
Out of 10: 9