Nicola Spendlove

Nicola Spendlove adores words in all their forms. She is a regular writer for a number of print and online publications — including HealthyPlace, Waterford News & Star, and Ireland before You Die. Nicola is also an accomplished spoken word artist, award-winning playwright and passionate creative writing facilitator.

When Nicola is not writing, she enjoys travelling, working as an occupational therapist and spending time in her adopted hometown of Tramore, Co. Waterford.

On A Sabbatical in Leipzig , by Adrian Duncan

A Sabbatical in Leipzig is the second published novel of Adrian Duncan, an Irish artist based in Berlin. It follows our protagonist, Michael, through his daily life – while interspersed with numerous flashbacks from his earlier years.

One couldn’t call Michael a warm character, but there is something decidedly likeable about him. The story is told in the first person through Michael’s eyes, and I found myself smiling while listening to the world described in his voice from very early on in the book.

Michael is a structural engineer (as was the author originally) and one gets the distinct impression that he tries to apply the same logic to life as he does to his designs. However, his life simply doesn’t follow a discernible formula – there is the death of many loved ones, including his beloved partner Catherine, for one thing. Then there are the complicated relationships with his siblings, many of whom simply don’t seem to understand Michael. Overall, there’s just a general sense that Michael doesn’t quite fit in in the world around him.

What’s beautiful about Duncan’s writing is that he doesn’t use sentimentality to tug on the heartstrings of the reader in what could be a tragic story. Michael’s matter of fact manner of speaking is unintentionally humorous in many places – reminiscent of a sort of Eleanor Oliphant character in the way he describes life events with the tone of a bemused outsider. Michael never directly tells us about his emotions – but we are made party to his vulnerability through frequent allusions to a sort of breakdown that led him to move to Leipzig.

One of the most simultaneously enjoyable and sad parts of the book is the flashbacks to Michael’s relationship with the late Catherine, his “girlfriend” of over forty years. Again, Duncan is clever in his approach to this – Michael is not a sentimental man, so he never tells us directly that he loved Catherine. However, we see their connection and similarities clearly through the anecdotes he shares about their life together. There was one particular scene that made me laugh out loud where the pair visit Michael’s sister for dinner, and Catherine chooses not to eat the meal due to her small appetite and dislike for what’s served. Defying social norms without a second thought seems to be a quality that Michael and Catherine hold in common, and their confused reaction to his sister’s upset is a light relief. What is particularly sad is the contrast in the quiet understanding that Michael has with Catherine, and the disconnection with all the other people in his life. One gets the impression that he has truly lost the only person he ever felt intimacy with.

Duncan clearly allowed his engineering background to inform much of his writing – the pages are even dotted with structural drawings in Duncan’s own hand. I found my background as a clinician informing my reading of Michael – I analysed his compulsive behaviours, his direct manner, and his very set views on the world and had to stop myself from labelling him with various diagnoses. I don’t believe that Duncan wrote this beautiful and stark novel so that we could analyse Michael and how he’s different. I believe at the core of this novel there is a message that behind every ordinary life, and every societal outcast, there is a story at the core that is human in a way that we can all connect to.

This was one of my favourite books I’ve read in a long time – order it and devour it in one sitting, you’ll find yourself thinking about Michael long after you’re done.

A Sabbatical in Leipzig

By Adrian Duncan

(Lilliput, 2020)

ISBN-13: 978-1843517764

© 2020 Nicola Spendlove