I so enjoyed reading my first Mike Gayle novel, Half A World Away, earlier this year that I decided to also read his newest, All the Lonely People. It didn’t disappoint.
This story opens as we observe a grumpy, old man, Hubert Bird, speaking from his London home with his daughter who works in Australia. He recounts to her all the fun he’s been having with his circle of elderly friends, and she quizzes him on his friends’ children and grandchildren.
When the phone call ends, Hubert kicks himself over his glaring errors, realizing he will have to be more careful in planning details of his imaginary social life. The declared upcoming visit of his daughter sets him in panic mode, as it dawns on him he must now manufacture an actual social life in a short amount of time.
“There are so many lonely people around these days. I see it at the vet’s all the time: old dears whose only friend in the world is their pet and who want nothing more than a little chat when they pop in […]. The world is moving so fast and no one’s got time to stop these days.”
The story then divides into dual timelines, Hubert’s day-to-day life in the present world as he sets about trying to change his lonely life in order to keep his daughter from worrying about him, and the story of how, as a young man, Hubert left his family and his small town in Jamaica to come to London for better opportunities.
We see traces of the man Hubert once was in the grumpy, elderly version, so it’s fun to follow along on Hubert’s journey as a younger, more optimisitic Hubert exchanges his sunny, tropical island for grey and drizzly London. In London, he faces hardship, discrimination and racism, but he also builds a life for himself and falls in love with a young Englishwoman with whom he starts a family.
The dual storylines touch upon numerous themes: love and friendship, friends, family, racism and a sense of otherness, loss and, overwhelmingly, loneliness.
Perhaps this novel exploring how easy it is for one to become invisible in society takes on a special significance in this COVID era. The isolation Hubert willingly embraces has been foisted unwillingly on far too many in this period of global lockdowns, with most devastating consequences on far too many elderly.
I thoroughly enjoyed following alongside Hubert on his journey as he carves out a life for himself in Britain, and following his contempary life story, as he slowly works to create friendships and break down the barriers he has so carefully constructed around his heart.
An uplifting, optimisitic story that resonates even more in our current situation – a highly enjoyable and worthwhile read.