The end of a book doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the story. A well-told tale can leave you with the sense that the characters really could live on after you turn the final page. Somewhere, in their own magical universe, they continue their journey even if we, the readers, no longer get to witness it. But every so often, we get the opportunity to revisit their world by way of a sequel, an inviting chance to find out what happened after that last sentence, that final full stop.
It’s a sequel that reunites us with Franklyn Shaw, the protagonist of Robert Glancy’s critically acclaimed debut novel Terms & Conditions. In this sequel, the Zambian-born New Zealand author Glancy takes us back to the life of his hapless hero who has been navigating his problems the only way he knows how: with the help of a lot of footnotes.
When we met him in Terms & Conditions, Frank was a corporate lawyer who wrote contracts for a living and specialised in the fine print. After a car crash, he was struck with amnesia and left unable to recall details about his past. All he could remember was that something awful had happened, but he no longer knew what it was. As he recovered and slowly regained his memory, piecing together the fragments of his former existence and self by drafting the contract of his life, he wasn’t exactly thrilled with the emerging picture of his family, marriage and career.
A sequel to a critically acclaimed debut novel allows us to see the lives of characters beyond the last page of the first and deepens its emotional impact
Unconditional picks up where its predecessor left off and finds Frank leaving his old life and all its messes behind, but retaining the people who bring him happiness, as he turns over a new leaf and starts a new chapter. A move to Thailand reunites him with his younger brother Malcolm — we finally get to meet the youngest Shaw sibling, whom we only got to know through emails in the previous book. Inspired by Malcolm’s adventurous spirit, Frank tries to embrace a more spontaneous life.
Accompanying Frank on his journey is Sandra, his friend-turned-lover who had been his compass when things were falling apart around him. The couple settles down on the beautiful island of Ko Chang with the support of Malcolm and his family — wife Tan and daughter Pim — and starts teaching at the school Malcolm runs.
Their pleasant new life gives Frank and Sandra the chance to enjoy rewarding work, amicable company and blissful surroundings. But it turns out that even paradise isn’t immune to misfortune. In a brief flash forward at the start of the book, we are told that a soldier is aiming a rifle at Frank’s face. We eventually discover how he gets to that point after tragedy strikes and things spiral out of control, testing the powers of familial love and personal strength.
If Terms & Conditions was built around family friction, Unconditional is rooted in family support. The first novel took the shape of the terms and conditions of Frank’s life, stating the terms of the different facets of his existence, and its follow-up retains this structure. But this time, Frank seems to be trying to “erase the fine print riddling his mind” and embracing the moment, striving to “live right here, right now” instead of getting bogged down by the minutiae. Of course, it will all make a lot more sense if one has read the first book, and readers would be more invested in Frank’s fate if they knew his whole yarn, but there is still a lot one can appreciate about Unconditional even if the first instalment isn’t perused.
Glancy’s knack for plotting a course through darkness with wit and wisdom shines as his protagonist makes his way through major life changes. The author explores human behaviour and navigates human experiences at every turn, beautifully capturing the touching and poignant moments.
The storyline may not be hugely inventive, but it makes a significant emotional impact. The most affecting parts of the book revolve around the bond between the two Shaw brothers and the joys and travails of parenthood in its various shades. The writer’s voice is so authentic that it is fairly obvious that he is a parent himself — as he verifies in the acknowledgements at the end — crediting his children for providing the inspiration behind some of the dialogues.
Unconditional’s strength lies in the fact that it is built around three-dimensional characters. Even the supporting characters — such as Doug, the insurance actuary who helped Frank during his amnesia in the previous volume and his delightful partner Roger — are well-crafted. Plus, Glancy makes sure that Frank eventually learns to see those who wronged him — primarily his former wife Alice and his older brother Oscar — as “full human[s]” and not one-dimensional demons.
I frisbeed placemats over the summit, lobbed mugs into the ranges, speared the lower slopes with lamps, grunting, sweating, laughing, feeling so overjoyed that I was inspired to tear off my clothes, scale the summit ... set it on fire, and dance in the flames howling at the moon — I’m free! ... Free!* * Which, of course, I didn’t. I got back into the van, smiled at Sandra, and said, “Well, that’s that done.” — Excerpt from the book
There are, however, a few time jumps that leave space for more interesting discussions on family, change and love. Skipping ahead by months and even years without shedding much light on what transpired during that time makes it feel as though we may have missed the chance to further bond with the characters and delve into some more family drama. Plus, on occasion, some of the footnotes are a little too long and seem like they may have worked better as part of the main text.
On the whole, Unconditional is a short, quick read with a lot of depth and emotional resonance. The novel uses its story to explore love, loss, self-improvement, support and relationships, doing so with warmth and wit. The author’s style is affable and the way he delivers the tale is often amusing and always affecting. If you enjoyed Frank’s previous adventure, then this sequel is a journey well worth taking, and it is very likely to leave you looking forward to Glancy’s next effort.
The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic
By Robert Glancy
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 11th, 2019