Claire is a mess. Her friends all have interesting and lucrative careers as artists or lawyers but she’s voluntarily unemployed and mooching about her flat in pyjamas searching online for her dream job. “You know”, one friends says, “not everyone can be a hero or live the dream – we just need to contribute what we can. Pull our weight, earn a living. There’s no shame in that.”
In her debut novel, Lisa Owens introduces us to Claire Flannery, a London based millennial who packed in her unfulfilling job in ”creative communications” (a role she hates and can’t even explain when asked about it) to find her calling. But Claire can’t figure out her calling so her days become a blur of procrastination and half-hearted online job applications for jobs she's unqualified to do. Meanwhile, her live-in boyfriend Luke is literally a brain surgeon.
Claire tells her story in broken chunks. Each vignette has a new focus and takes place in a new location, often hours or days after the last. This approach mirrors Claire’s increasingly unstructured and unproductive days at home. But it also means that the book can feel at times like a disjointed stream of consciousness, jumping between themes (relationships, marriage, alcohol abuse, family tensions, unfulfilled potential) but never quite settling on one.
It’s easy at first to dismiss Claire’s unhappiness as millennial ennui or the modern expectation of the so called ‘snowflake generation’ that a well-paid and fulfilling job is out there and that with enough Googling it will land at their feet. But at a funeral early on, Claire’s tipsy throwaway comment about the deceased provides us with some context to her mental health.
Claire’s remark to her cousins about their grandfather’s unusual sense of humour results in Claire’s mother cutting off all communication, which adds to Claire’s increasing helplessness. She is unemployed, lonely and her relationship with the brain surgeon is strained.
Luke is a central but under developed character. He’s a handsome trainee doctor and Claire is aware that his attractive colleague is actively pursuing him, although Luke feigns obliviousness to her efforts. Claire becomes convinced he is cheating on her. She drags herself to a party where posh Chelsea girls Totty and Clem knowingly ask about some big plans Luke has made with his colleague. But Claire is unaware of them until that moment.
We focus on Claire so much that the other characters feel peripheral and a little clichéd. Her doting father on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her highly strung mother, the ostensibly perfect man and the collection of dinner party acquaintances throughout, could all pop up in any number of novels pitched at young professionals. The obvious comparison is with Bridget Jones’ Diary.
Claire’s obsessive hunt for purpose masks darker issues. But despite the undertone of abuse, casual alcohol dependency and a mental lull veering towards depression, Not Working still manages to be funny and relatable to anyone on the nine-to-five treadmill wondering if this is it. “I didn’t work hard at school and go to university so I could spend my life sending emails.” None of us did.
In the end of course, her career turns out to have been the least of Claire’s problems but she needs to figure that out first. The book is a surprisingly moving yet funny first person account of her attempts to patch everything up and find some meaning to her life. As ever, when work seems to be an insurmountable problem, there is usually a deeper root.
Published by Picador in paperback- €17.99
I bought a paper copy (an actual book!) instead of Kindling it so drop me a note and I'll give you my copy (which I'm sure the author loves to see...).