I find myself increasingly distracted these days, Bookaholics. If I’m watching TV, I’m flicking through Facebook on my phone; if I’m texting I’m also on Twitter – my brain is constantly buzzing. Even when I’m reading I find my mind can still wander and I often pause to Google spurious things like whether Jimmy Tarbuck is still alive (yes, if you’re interested) or whether you can get ill from eating coleslaw 3 days out of date (also yes, don’t do it). So when I find a book that properly captures my imagination and absorbs my full attention, I consider that quite a find. Backstories by Simon Van der Velde is exactly that.
This is unquestionably the most unique text I have read in a very long time. Packaged as a series of short stories, each one captures a snapshot of a famous person’s life with one specific catch – the author never explicitly tells us who they are referring to. This is an incredibly effective hook to draw the reader in. Cast in the role of detective, I was on the alert immediately, rising to the challenge of piecing together the evidence on offer. Some individuals were definitely easier to guess than others and I knew within a few paragraphs who they referred to; with others the penny didn’t drop until the final lines of the chapter. (In the name of transparency I have to confess there is one I still don’t know but NO SPOILERS I AM DETERMINED TO WORK IT OUT). One fact remained consistent right the way through – at the end of every section, my immediate impulse was to go back and reread that particular part to pick up on all the clues I had missed first time. And believe me, there were plenty.
Undoubtedly this is where the magnetism of Backstories truly lies, in the way each clue is hidden within the text without ever being so overt that it ruins the reader’s enjoyment or the climactic sense of achievement in guessing correctly. Van der Velde shows immense skill in creating uniquely different voices for every single chapter, keeping each narrative fresh and individual, whilst also skipping between various periods of history with apparent ease. The dexterity of this should not be underestimated nor the detailed research it must have required. If I have one criticism of this book, it would be that I wanted more: each snapshot is so brief yet so engaging that I wasn’t prepared to part with that story when the next began. This alone tells you how talented this author’s writing is and I look forward to reading anything else he has published.
It is difficult to say more without providing spoilers but it probably goes without saying that I fully recommend this to you. I could picture myself with friends reading each chapter aloud and seeing who could guess the subject first or even running competitions to see who could spot the most clues (after all never let it be said I don’t know how to party). Backstories may be small but it is perfectly formed and is the perfect choice for anyone feeling like all they ever read is the same old stuff over and over again. Try it. You won’t regret it.