Can’t Look Away

A review of Kevin Sampsell’s This is Between Us

Kevin Sampsell’s novel, This is Between Us, places the reader into the role of a voyeur, sneaking long glances into the secret lives of two divorcees who fall in love in the weirdest ways. Sampsell’s work could easily be mistaken for memoir, as the book mimics journal entries written by the male partner, writing to his female counter-part, and addressing her only as “You.” These intriguing short vignettes, most fewer than three pages, chronicle the narrator’s memories over a period of five years. The little pieces are brilliant, the language frequently verging on prose poetry, the subject matter ranging from light, hysterical fantasies to morbid and depressing insights.

At times, I felt dirty reading the secret sexual encounters and awkward parenting lessons that the narrator recounts to his partner. The writing evokes such candor that I couldn’t help feeling that I was reading nonfiction. Even as the stories shift from serious to goofy the voice maintains its conversational tone, never veering too far into sappy or verbose monologue. It felt like the narrator was standing in front of me, confessing everything about their relationship, but there was a certain restraint in the language that kept it from becoming overbearing in its emotion.

There is a deep love that is recognizable in the narrator’s reflections on odd romantic outings, struggles communicating with his children, and the childhood memories he shares with “You.” Many of these scenes highlight the weird, sometimes twisted humor both the narrator and his female partner possess. Their witty dialogue and absurd gestures feed off one another, spiraling their conversations further from reality and into an interior, slightly off-kilter world. Within some of these comedic moments it feels as though Sampsell may be channeling kooky TV personas into his characters. They’re so very aware of how strange they seem, and act too cute to be real people. However, it’s also apparent that his characters are intentionally acting dramatically for each other, and fully enjoying their show. What keeps these moments from becoming imitative writing borrowing from the ironically weird stereotype is Sampsell’s unique voice. He perfectly captures the wry attitudes bent by his character’s perversions. Rather than being imitations of other characters, Sampsell’s couple appears to be influenced by the common social experiences that cause generations to question their roles as adults.

If you require a strict narrative or connected plot to enjoy a novel, you may be disappointed in This is Between Us, as the main forward movement comes from the relationship itself, and a vague sense of time passing through the year-divided sections. Even within the narrative of the growing relationship across the central five years, there are occasional memories that drift farther back in time. These drifts come casually, as the narrator is reminded of memories by another event or character, and add to the diary-like writing style. Sampsell guides us into these moments well, placing them within the context of each year and maintaining the somewhat consecutive timeline. But they may further frustrate a reader who has difficulty connecting with a loose narrative.

As I read This is Between Us, I wanted to share the diary entries with people around me, so they could laugh or be shocked, or maybe even aroused along with me. Sampsell has created a brilliant pair of characters, who have a mutual curiosity about life, death, and their bodies. The novel is very present, fully aware of the world and the time of its release, with references to reality TV, YouTube, and sexting. But these are background tools utilized to develop the ongoing relationship between the couple and their children. Everything is made personal. There is such intimacy present on the page that it’s hard to turn away. I wanted to keep watching them.

This is Between Us
by Kevin Sampsell
Tin House Books
November 2013
240 pages. $15.95
Publisher’s Page

This review can be found in our Fall 2013 issue (Vol. 60.1).