If there is one thing that the last year has taught us is that we, humans, need other humans. Whether it is chatting, embracing, laughing or crying, we all need people in our lives. “Loneliness kills more people than cancer.” says Ashleigh, one of the main characters in Gayle’s latest novel, and even though that is not truly proven, Ashleigh’s statement really shines a light on all these people who we may not notice, all the people who hide their pain and isolation. All the Lonely People gives us a timely meditation on life, love, race, and humanity. It is a wholesome and compassionate book, and it all starts with one character.
Meet Hubert Bird. He is 84, he lives alone with his cat Puss, and whether he wants to admit it or not, he is lonely. The story revolves around Hubert and the narrative is split into two, jumping chapter on chapter between his past and his present. Thus, slowly and steadily we get to learn about his life, his family, his experience as a young black people in the late 20th century Britain, and his present situation as a pensioner. Hubert from the past is young and optimistic, in love with life, and he clashes with Hubert from the present who is grumpy and lonely. Mike Gayle skillfully brings them both to life and page by page he also manages to reconcile these two sides of the same man.
We first meet Hubert as a young man in Jamaica who sees his friends going abroad looking for a brighter future. Within a few pages, he also boards a ship heading to Britain. The majority of Hubert’s past takes place in London portraying his struggles as a young, Black man trying to make his way in a racist and prejudiced society. Despite the hurdles that British society throws at him, Hubert is positive and energetic, willing to work hard to make his dreams come true. As events unfold, we meet his young, white girlfriend – soon to be wife – Joyce. The narrative of the past focuses on their relationship, the young dreams they share, the family they create and the heartbreaks they suffer. A whole life is told on the pages of the past narrative, and it is a real pleasure to share this life with Hubert, Joyce, their friends, and their children.
The Hubert of the present is just as interesting and enchanting as his younger self. Initially, he is presented as just another grumpy, old man. However, with the arrival of new people in his life, we begin to see his old, life-loving self emerge from the shadows. And this is when we realise that he is not a grumpy, old man – he is just lonely. We often forget that the older you get the ratio between people arriving in your life and people disappearing changes. We see Hubert experiencing loss after loss, and we also see the difficulties he faces when trying to create new bonds and relationships in his life. Gayle’s writing on the topic of loneliness is open and honest. He shows us through the character of Ashleigh that loneliness is not something that only old people face; it is ever present in our lives and we should not be scared to talk about it. We also should not be scared to do something about it no matter how daunting it seems. Hubert’s initial fear of looking for friends gives way to happiness and feeling alive once he decides to come out of his shell and embrace life once again.
There is a lot going on in Mike Gayle’s novel. All the Lonely People highlights many a topic worth discussing and writing about, and this review cannot focus on them all. This is why, I urge you to get yourself a copy of this great novel. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will start paying more attention to the small things in life, the people around you everything and everyone that makes life a great adventure.
All The Lonely People is out now, published by Hodder & Stoughton