“The Girl He Left Behind” by Lesley Hayes

Life relentlessly returns us to the truths we need to learn. The last two words of this book – “I’m hopeful.” – reflect what I have come to expect from Lesley Hayes’ novels. She always takes us on a fascinating journey through the trials and tribulations of her characters, enabling us almost constantly to identify with them and to relate their experiences to our own in a way that helps us understand ourselves; but just as reliably, she leaves us with hope that despite “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”, all may yet be well.

So many of her observations resonate with me. “It’s interesting how the way you see someone initially sets the template for who you believe them to be – at least until you’ve amassed enough contradictory data to see them otherwise. Sometimes, even then, however compelling the reasons to revise your view of them, you cling to that first vision as if it is the truth.” “I made that mistake human beings are so prone to, believing that I could heal her and make her whole again. It’s such an arrogant delusion.” Ouch.

“Can any of us say with certainty that we understand the person we love, or ourselves?” The author exemplifies the importance of that question in this beautifully written first-person narrative. Kat takes us through a painful journey towards her eventual, key realisation that “Alex filled me up with Alex. Annie has always filled me with love.”

“Who can adequately interpret the mystery of love?” How is it that you can go on loving someone long after you stopped liking them? The author gets close to answering that question when she has Alex tell Kat: “She’s really just an illusion you’ve kept alive inside you – and that’s the only place you’ll find her.”

“What was the glitch in the human condition that made alternative seem wrong rather than simply other?” That’s another vitally important question. So many of Lesley Hayes’ insights will resonate with her readers: “I suspect that ‘closure’ is one of those myths we hold on to, regardless of all the evidence that the best we can aim for is to offload our baggage of grief in increasing increments.”

There are some lovely images. “There was a solidity to her that didn’t match her delicate outward appearance. I had almost broken a tooth on a chocolate like that once.” She is always analytical, and painfully honest about feelings: “If my childhood had taught me anything it was how to survive without love.” “The fact was I couldn’t really bear it not to be true that I understood Alex better than anyone.” “Sometimes crying can be a welcome release, at other times it’s simply a painful reminder of desolation.” How often have we been “torn between anger at [a person’s] selfishness and compassion for [their] suffering?”

After reading one of Lesley Hayes’ books, you are almost certainly bound to agree with her that “Life trumps fiction every time.” This story is a brilliant depiction of life, though how much of it is ‘fiction’ in any sense is something only the author knows. I imagine it was difficult to write. It would have been impossible for me.

Kat asked Alex once “whether therapy was supposed to make people happy.” “That isn’t the point of it, Kat,” she explained. “Its purpose is really to help people transform neurotic misery into common unhappiness.”

I have said it before and I say it again: Lesley Hayes deserves to be regarded as a major figure in English Literature. I have now read and reviewed six of her books, the same number as were written by Jane Austen. Is her work “caviar to the general”? I sincerely hope not. Are there literary agents and major publishers out there with the wit to recognise quality writing more than capable of generating profitable sales with the right marketing? I seriously doubt it; but I have recommended her previous five books without reservation and have no hesitation in adding this sixth one to her pantheon of excellence.