Book review: Saturdays at Noon by Rachel Marks

(cover image courtesy Penguin UK)

Finding a place to call home is all any of us really want.

We may talk about a thousand and one other needs and wants but if really pressed, and everything else is taken away from us, all that matters is that we have people to whom we are connected in a place we can very much call out own.

Saturdays at Noon by Rachel Marks understand the pounding, primal nature of this need to be connected and to belong in ways that will beguile and delight and ultimately go right into the very heart of you where the really important things, the non-negotiable must-haves and wish-lists of life reside.

It is one of those wonderfully deceptive books, the back cover synopsis of which reads like a simple but rewarding romantic comedy, the kind that populate many a British setting and which if well written remind us how wonderfully lovely the business of meeting someone and falling in love can be.

Saturdays at Noon is definitely in the starry-eyed the-world-can-be-wonderful camp, excelling as a tale of two lost souls, two very different lost souls, finding each other and having their respective lives upended in the very best of ways.

But it is also far more than that, taking us deep into the lives of Emily and Jake, two people from wholly different places in life who find themselves in the same 12-week anger management course presided by the lovely and patient Sam.

“The boy, who must be only five, studies me [Emily] as if reading the words on a page but doesn’t speak. Then he buries his face in his knees and covers his head with his arms. I’m only being nice. Surely my face isn’t that off-putting? I scan the room to see if he belongs to anyone but, unless they’ve simply forgotten their child exists, there are no obvious claimants so I try again.” (P. 3)

As people go, they couldn’t be more different.

Emily, estranged from her mother after a lifetime of emotional neglect and occasional foster care, is a prickly shell of self-defensiveness, none too impressed with laying her heart further on the line in the caring, sharing environment of the group, especially fresh as she is from yet another broken heart.

She doesn’t take too well to Sam’s entreaties to hold hands with the person sitting next to her and to say the affirming phrases that are the group’s positivity-laced stock in trade, and so clashes with Jake who attending the course to try and save his faltering marriage to disengaged Jemma.

The main driver of his angst and rage is his six-year-old son Alfie who at his best is a delightfully exuberant, creative kid who loves LEGO and spending time with those he loves.

But Alfie has a dark side, or, more accurately, a difficult side, flying into furious tantrums when he doesn’t get his way, the unpredictability of his emotional twists and turns and the unrelenting intensity of his interactions with his parents taxing Jake’s ability to cope.

A stay-at-home dad and ex-teacher, Jake is convinced he is simply a terrible dad and that he is failing at the most important job he’s ever had, followed closely by his inability to sustain his rapidly-deteriorating marriage.

Rachel marks (image courtesy Curtis Brown)

When Jake and Emily meet at the start of Saturdays at Noon, they are meeting at possibly the worst points of their respective lives.

Neither is happy and while they secretly believe deep down that life could be brighter and better, neither of them can say what would look like and they certainly don’t think that finding that near-mythical and longed-for will involve either one having a role to play in each other’s lives.

And then Emily meets Alfie, and everything changes.

Emily gets Jake like no one else before her has, and Jake almost instantly decides Emily is the best person he has ever met, and as the two of them bond over LEGO and animated movies, superheroes and park rides, it is inevitable that Jake and Emily go from simply being fellow members of an anger management course, who don’t really like each other, to something far, far more.

If that’s all there was to Saturdays at Noon, then the book would still be a brilliant read because Marks possesses an insightful eye for the complicated nature of romantic love and how what we think we want isn’t always what we need and that the person we think is the one we need may not be the right fit at all.

In other words, Marks gets what love is like and that alone makes Saturdays at Noon worth the price of admission.

The joy of this most wondrously substantial of debut novels is that is is far, far more than just a romantic comedy (the use of “just” in this context is a not a benignly pejorative putdown; it simply points to one facet of a beautifully realised and emotionally affecting novel).

“After a day dealing with a teen pregnancy announcement, a fight in the canteen that resulted in a broken nose and a drugs raid because one of the kids had been spotted with MDMA in the common room, the last thing I need is another awkward encounter with Emily. Before the end of last week, a friendship between us had seemed a possibility. But with Emily, it’s always one step forward and two steps back.” (P. 199)

What you get in Saturdays at Noon is, at heart, what it is like to belong to someone or a group of someones and to really make yourself vulnerable to them and get to know them.

As Emily begins to spend more and more time with Alfie, she is the one, by virtue of her initial outside status, who suspects there is more to her very young friend than simply being an angry young boy.

It is clear that he is bright, resilient, affectionate and desperate to spend time with those he feels safest with and loves, but that there are other dynamics at work that complicate his life and make his interactions with others so problematic and emotionally taxing.

The story of Alfie was inspired by the author’s own journey with her eldest son and as a result there is an rewardingly empathetic feel to the way Alfie is represented and an authenticity to the way that Jake, who is actually a damn good dad, and Emily relate to him which reflects the grinding reality of reality of loving and caring for someone like Alfie.

The story of Alfie, Jake and Emily, who become bound together in ways that neither foresees at the beginning – unless, of course, you take into account that Alfie decides early on he loves Emily and that they will be friends or “best bugs” forever – is a profoundly beautiful one, rich and true, flawed and gorgeously, life-changingly whole, infusing the entirety of Saturdays at Noon with a truthfulness that makes its a peerlessly affecting read.

Mark’s brilliantly poignant debut is a gem, a story that acknowledge life’s grim realities and the way they blacken our past and hobble our present but which never accedes to the idea that this all life can be.

Saturdays at Noon offers hope, fulfillment and joy in ways that don’t feel trite or treacly but hard-won and arrestingly meaningful, proof that while life may take us through the wringer and back, leaving us feeling as if there is no way out or forward, that is by no means the end of the story and that if we are open to it, there might be more wonder and happiness awaiting us that we ever expected and in forms that take our breath and our hearts away, changing us forever in the process.

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