When We Were Alive is a complex novel that spans several eras and several generations, documenting the chaotic lives of a number of seemingly unrelated people. We meet Bobby, a painfully shy 12-year-old wannabe magician, and witness his friendship and romance unfolding with his new best friend Rose; Miles, who has never known his real mother and writes a series of letters to her, detailing the day-to-day events of his life; and William, who is drinking himself to oblivion in Las Vegas.
They all have more than their fair share of problems and their narratives are poignant, believable and pretty depressing. As one of the characters says though, sad things can be beautiful too, and their lives are a testament to finding the positives in negatives and surviving in a world that makes no sense, through successive wars and family dramas.
I found some parts of the stories to be very moving, particularly watching the young men heading off to war, unaware of the horrors that await them, and the numerous accidental deaths, along with the repercussions that they have on the other characters. I did find it hard to keep track of who was who though and the constant jumping around in chronology made it doubly so. By the time I realised that they were all generations of the same family, my brain was fizzing and could no longer work out who fitted where into the family tree, particularly after the final confusing chapter, which left my brain felt totally addled trying to work it all out. I actually skimmed all the way back through the book to help slot everything into place, but there were still a certain number of minor characters that I couldn't figure out, such as Paul, Charlie, Sam, James and Daisy and I ended up with the feeling that I was missing something - the final few pieces of the jigsaw that would make a satisfyingly complete picture. Maybe there were supposed to be a few loose ends or pieces of the puzzle that don't fit though, as the blurb on the back of the book mentions the characters "trying to bear the burden of guilt from living in a world we are powerless to fix". That was certainly the sensation that I was ultimately left with as a reader !
If I had the time, I would definitely start reading it all over again and I will be looking at other people's reviews to see what they thought (and whether they managed to unravel it all more completely than me !). It would be a great choice for a book club as it is packed with complex characters and relationships in unsettling times and the "sins of the fathers" coming back to haunt the future generations would be an interesting topic for discussion.
This is C.J. Fisher's first novel, but you may be interested to know that she vlogs as Ophelia Dagger and has over 30,000 YouTube subscribers. The book was apparently inspired by events in her own life.
star rating : 4/5
RRP : £8.99
Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.