She told me that she'd once asked Ellis if we'd ever kissed. She said he looked at her, trying to fathom out what she wanted him to say. After a while, he said, We might have once, but we were young. [p. 164]
Then Ellis acquires and reads Michael's journal, which recounts the years of Michael's disappearance from Ellis and Annie's lives. Until the death of Michael's grandmother, the three had been close friends: after that, Michael abandoned them, first for London and then for the South of France. It becomes clear from Michael's narrative just how much Ellis has refused to acknowledge about their relationship: he and Michael had been lovers, briefly, before Annie came along.
From one angle this is a love story set before and during the AIDS crisis. Michael is dying when he returns to Oxford, and has already watched one lover die. (I couldn't help wondering whether the car crash was an accident.) But from another angle I read it as a novel about fathers. Ellis' father has shaped his son's life, by ruthlessly quashing any 'artistic' or 'soft' impulses in Ellis. Michael's father, too, was a strong influence: finding his son dressing up in his departed mother's clothes, he behaves as though Michael has made some irrevocable choice and should henceforth be excluded from masculine activities such as football. (Notably, both men's mothers are absent. Michael's grandmother Mabel is a kind of mother to both: later, perhaps, so is Annie, who doesn't get a narrative of her own.)
I found the ending depressing. It seemed to me that Ellis was turning his back not only on the possibilities of his everyday life, but on the memories of Annie, choosing instead to revisit the place where Michael was happiest: choosing, instead, the relationship he spent so long denying.
This novel was greatly acclaimed, but it felt to me like a sentimental tragedy. Winman's writing is gorgeous and I was impressed by the contrast between Ellis' narrative and Michael's, and the recurring themes and images throughout. I will look out for her other novels, which I hope will be in happier modes.