Come Again

Robert Webb

Canongate, £16.99

Review by Chris Dobson

Three years ago, Robert Webb’s memoir How Not To Be a Boy was acclaimed for its unflinchingly honest – and unfailingly funny - examination of modern masculinity. In the actor and comedian’s first novel, the focus is a feisty female protagonist, Kate.

When we meet her at the start of Come Again, she’s not in a great place. The sudden death of her husband, Luke, has turned her world upside-down.

If only she could go back in time to the day they met, in 1992. Lo and behold, in a magical realist flourish worthy of Life on Mars, Kate wakes up in the body of her 18-year-old self. She now has the chance to warn Luke of the brain tumour that will kill him before it’s too late.

If it sounds outlandish, that’s because it is, but it’s unabashedly so. Like Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris, it doesn’t have to make sense when the ride is so enjoyable. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to get to this point. Before then, it’s necessary to wade through 90 pages, and although Webb achieves some powerful insights into grief and mental health, this section rather overstays its welcome.

In fact, if I can be forgiven for employing a non-coeliac-friendly simile, Come Again is like a sandwich: it has a warm, delicious filling, but the bread on either side is a bit stale.

The main problem with Come Again is that it feels like two books that have been awkwardly stitched together. The time-travelling romantic comedy is a delight, subversively beginning at the end of a relationship before going back to its genesis.

But in its first and third acts, Come Again takes on the guise of a spy thriller, complete with an evil Russian billionaire. These elements might have worked in a novel of their own, but here they distract from the personal relationships that make the story so engaging.

Stylistically, too, this is a mixed bag. There are the jokes and gratuitous swearing familiar to Peep Show fans, but Webb is also keen to assert his literary credentials, with references to Shakespeare sprinkled throughout the plot. Luke’s failed ambition to be the next James Joyce is possibly a self-commentary by Webb on his own writerly limitations.

It is only to be hoped that in Webb’s future writings we see more of his coarse humour – which, for sure, will not be to everyone’s tastes – and less of the literary pretensions Kate so despises in her former husband’s unfinished novel. Kate herself has a strong narrative voice, asserting her independence while revealing a vulnerability which feels very human.

Webb doesn’t hide his political allegiances and there are references throughout to contemporary events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. With its short chapters and dramatic set pieces, the novel feels filmic, and at its heart is a timely message: there’s no point looking to the past, no matter how perfect it may have seemed, which can apply to countries as well as people.

Students and alumni of York University, where parts of the book are set, are also likely to enjoy Come Again.

But where it most succeeds is in its exploration of the performativity of gender roles – as Kate argues to her traditional mother, the fact that she likes what is conventionally viewed as ‘boys’ stuff’ makes her no less of a woman.

When Webb’s novel really gets going in its second act, a quirky cast of characters bursts to life, from Kes – a “working-class-with-airs-and-graces bisexual funbucket” – to possible spy Toby. By the time the book ends, you’ll be left wanting to know more about these characters’ extravagant lives, leaving ample space for a sequel or prequel somewhere down the line.