If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel is a novel that reads almost like a collection of short stories, set in the summer of 1972 in a working class community on Long Island.
Narrated by Katie, the stories within This Beautiful focus on a group of young people, all trying to navigate their futures, all in some way affected by the Vietnam War.
Let’s talk first about that title, which clocks in at 17 words and 75 characters. I think it’s absolutely magnificent – it’s a story all of its own, without any further explanation needed. When an explanation does appear in the book, the title becomes even more poignant. I don’t think every book should have a title that will take up more than half a tweet, but for Chicurel’s novel it really works.
Once you’re past the title, what you’re faced with in This Beautiful is a series of haunting tales about a group of people undergoing huge change. Some parts read like vignettes, others short stories, and they all come together to paint a portrait of a town scarred by war yet on the cusp of something new.
Katie takes us through Long Island, introducing us to her school friends, Mitch the Vietnam War vet who lost a leg and spends all his time drinking, the local drug dealers, Luke the Vietnam War vet she’s in love with, and more. Set in the summer between Katie’s leaving school and starting college, every story Katie tells and person she introduces us to is in some way a manifestation of what she herself is going through – trying to find her place, work out who she is and what she wants from the future.
As a novel with the Vietnam War close to its centre, there is an awful lot of talk about death, and to counter that, an awful lot of talk about birth. Many of Katie’s peers are becoming parents, and Katie frequently references wanting to get married and have children herself. Becoming a mother is seen in some ways in the novel as the ultimate validation, at other times as a punishment for certain behaviours, and at others as a completely unwanted thing.
This Beautiful is not a conventional beginning, middle and end kind of book, so don’t expect everything tied up neatly in a bow. The closest I’ve come before to something like This Beautiful is Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried, a series of interlinked short stories about a platoon of soldiers who served in Vietnam. This Beautiful seems to tell the other side of the Vietnam story, focusing primarily on those left behind (and occasionally those who returned home). This Beautiful is painful at times (quite a lot of the time), but it’s also quite hopeful in some ways – the stories of people getting out and making a success of themselves are few, but the ones that work do have realistic happy endings. Chicurel’s novel will leave you feeling a bit raw, but you know you’ll have read something special.
•If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go is out in the UK on October 30, 2014.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Tinder Press. This did not affect my review.