By Matthew Ainley
Over the summer, I had the chance to spend more time visiting lots of bookshops. When popping into a Waterstones in mid-August, I came upon the bright pink cover and glossy black writing of Loveless. I remembered watching a Jack Edwards video in which he had reviewed the same book and thought ‘why not.’ Not returning to Durham until October, I was excited to see Alice Oseman’s portrayal of a city so close to my heart and relive my fragmented first and second years at university. I wasn’t disappointed.
Loveless details an exciting portrayal of the odd customs and quirks within Durham student culture whilst painting a painfully accurate (although at times exaggerated) emotional landscape of being a fresher at Durham. The long, daunting, and nerve-racked car ride up for the first day leaving parents behind, the surreal and comical reality of matriculation, and the bevy of societies, each with their own rules and rituals. As the story progresses and the characters embed themselves into different aspects of Durham life – Jason becomes a committed rower, Rooney tests out all the nightclubs in town, Pip enjoys the various events hosted by the Durham LGBT+ Association, all of them united by their attendance of the Shakespeare Society – the exciting yet unique student experience comes to fruition.
Oseman writes in a blend of humour and touching realism that makes moments of self-discovery and high tension hit all the harder. The main plot of the narrative follows first-year Georgia as she journeys to figure out her own sexual identity. She is forced to battle against her pre-existing ideas of love and romance and listen to her own thoughts and feelings to truly identify herself as aromantic asexual. While Georgia’s personal growth and development comes from her own desire for understanding and self-love, her achievement of self-discovery is helped insurmountably by the Durham setting. The inclusivity of the LGBT+ Association and the niche of the Shakespeare Society are paramount for Georgia because she meets new friends, pushes herself out of her comfort zone, performs, and has the university experience she wants. The Durham LGBT+ Association first gives Georgia the help and acceptance she deserves and needs. Oseman’s glowing representation of the LGBT+ Association, and societies in general, puts the Durham University culture down on paper in an honest and welcoming way.
As well as nailing the cultural landscape of Durham from a student perspective, Oseman manages to put to paper the unseen aspects of Durham: she captures the thoughts, feelings, and anxieties that first year students inevitably encounter at Durham. A topic that crops up time and time again throughout ‘Loveless’ is the need to ‘put yourself out there’ starting University, and Oseman captures this panicky and sometimes chaotic sequence of events. Georgia struggles with social anxiety and mentions on numerous occasions her depleted social battery during fresher’s week, and first term in general. Georgia finds a balance between socialising and watching movies in her room recuperating which debunks the narrative that you must be socialising all the time to enjoy the University life. As an introvert myself, it was refreshing to relate to Georgia so much and the feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, and homesickness that she felt.
The contemporary free flowing style of writing throughout the book provides a mind-map of geographical knowledge on the main sites of Durham University and a student tour guide for readers unaware of Durham’s attractions. Several hotspots of Durham life are noted consistently throughout – Vennels café, the Cathedral, Castle College, the Bailey etc. However, Oseman plays with the idyllic, quaint Durham town and twists it into magic – identical to the reality of university culture during term time. The river and boathouse become a place of a wacky musical-theatre costumed college marriage proposal and John’s chapel is turned into a meeting place for the aspiring Shakespeare Society. It’s so eerily accurate, at times I felt like I was reading about a friend’s first year there rather than a fictional account.
Like any coming-of-age story, ‘Loveless’ is a fantastically happy-go-lucky book that comes to a neat resolution under the united and peaceful union of the main characters under the single roof of their new student home. However, behind the plot and the characters is a Durham at its best. Aside from the geographical layout of Durham stamping itself onto the pages, the cultural landscape and emotional backdrop of Durham University is well reflected. It would make any Durham student, or reader in general, hungry to visit Durham and experience the sights it has to offer. Oseman’s Durham on paper folds the crazy, magical elements that lace each university experience back into the bowl and serves them up golden brown.
Illustration: Victoria Cheng