Three siblings, a car accident and a lifelong love: The young Benedict Wells infuses his novel with the wisdom and the wit of adulthood — and follows in the footsteps of some of the great coming-of-age novelists.
"And then came the eighth of January, a Sunday. In the years that followed I often tried to credit myself with having had some vague premonition, but that was probably nonsense. Towards evening the phone rang. When my aunt picked up the receiver I instantly sensed the change in the atmosphere, and sat down."
Not much is revealed here of the events that day in January when a car accident changed the life of the young protagonist Jules, along with his siblings Marty and Liz. Now orphans, relatives take care of the children. But how is Jules, who is not yet grown up, psychologically affected by such a shocking experience?
The story is partly autobiographical in that Benedict Wells, like Jules, spent his childhood in boarding schools.
Novel's inner core
"My fears grew like a crack slowly spreading in all directions. I began to be afraid of the dark, of death, of eternity. These thoughts drove thorns into my world, and the more often I contemplated them, the bigger the gulf between me and my often carefree, cheerful fellow students. I was alone. And then I met Alva."
Alva is a young girl who becomes Jules' intimate friend and the two do not initially think about love and sex. They share interests; they love music and books, they exchange views — about life, about losses, hopes and longings.
They become a couple much later in the book. Years have passed and both have other partners. Yet the relationship between Jules and Alva is the inner core, the soul of the novel that spans a lifetime from adolescence to adulthood.
"All this is like a seed. The school, boarding, what happened to my parents. All this has been sown in me, but I can't see what it's making of me. The harvest only comes when I'm grown-up, and then it's too late."
'Affecting and accomplished'
Benedict Wells spent seven years writing his fourth novel, which was published in 2016. He was only in his mid-twenties when he started the book. The End of Loneliness, which could also have been described as "The End of Youth," is an amazing novel. It tells of loss, death and illness; and yet is easy to read, entertaining, and packed with action from Jules' eventful life.
The German edition of the novel is aptly adorned with an image of actor Jeanne Moreau and director Francois Truffaut — who together made the film Jules and Jim, a reference Wells himself seems to play up by calling his protagonist Jules Moreau.
The End of Loneliness is both affecting and accomplished — "and eternal," wrote the American novelist, John Irving, who himself greatly influenced Wells.
Born with the family name Schirach, the author changed his name to Wells, partly because he liked Irving's character Homer Wells from the novel The Cider House Rules so much.
But the good thing about the novel is that you never have the feeling that a young, gifted German author is simply miming his role models. Benedict Wells has a literary voice of his own that carries great weight and that manages to appeal to a broad readership.
Benedict Wells: The End of Loneliness, Hodder & Stoughton, (German title: Vom Ende der Einsamkeit, 2016). English translation: Charlotte Collins.
Benedict Wells was born in Munich in 1984, attended various boarding schools and published his first novel, Beck's Last Summer, at the age of 23 — which has since been adapted into a film. The author lives in Berlin again after several years in Barcelona and also has Swiss citizenship. The End of Loneliness is his fourth novel.