sarah broughton

writer & artist

Review of Other Useful Numbers

At the end of ‘Other Useful Numbers’, Tracy, the narrator, says “at least that’s how I remember it.”  Tracy, a bed-hopping, kleptomaniac lost soul who at the start of the book “can’t see beyond [her] next packet of cigarettes”, has been on a journey, both external and internal, searching for clues that might lead her to her missing ex-lover, Anita.  But the clues never quite match up and her memories have holes in them and are unreliable – shockingly so, it turns out.

Sarah Broughton’s first novel is a story about loss and discovery, beautifully observed and achingly funny, the narrative woven into a 1980’s backdrop - the dole offices, the gender politics, Greenham common, Blankety Blank and Neighbours on the telly. Other characters meander in and out of Tracy’s life; the monogamous Heather – “In fact the more monogamous Heather becomes, the more frequently we sleep together”; Mike, who she only contacts when she needs something, and who will do anything for her even though she doesn’t sleep with him; Jill, who is scarred by unimaginable pain after her ex-husband took her children to Australia when she left him for a woman; Elaine who runs an eccentric corner shop with an “identity crisis”  – “you can… [come] in for a bottle of washing up liquid [and go] home with a garden spade”; her father and older sister, as distant and unknown as strangers.  But although she moves through the lives of so many people, Tracy is always looking over their shoulders, always searching for the lost Anita. 

Tracy casts a wonderful, sardonic eye on the world around her – the people, the music, the monotony of her dead end jobs, the loneliness of being in a crowd.  The narrative moves between past and present, as she remembers fragments of her relationship with Anita, and further back, fragments of her family life, trying to find out who she is and where she fits in.  “Life is a crack in the pavement I will fall through if I don’t concentrate” she says.

Only when Tracy discovers what she has probably been searching for all along can the pieces of her life slot into place.  When she ends by saying “At least that’s how I remember it” she is accepting, at last, that the pieces cannot and will not ever truly slot together, that for some things there are no answers – and that actually that’s ok.  There is no happy sunset ending, but Tracy has found something she didn’t even know she’d lost.  “Behind every door is another door, and another – and there is only the walking through to be done about it” she says.

Other Useful numbers is almost filmic in its beautiful, precise descriptions of the characters and the world they inhabit.  This is a compulsive, painful, bitter-sweet, laugh-out-loud novel; it’s a must-read, and Sarah Broughton is a talent to watch out for.

Catrin Clarke writes for film, television and radio.