If it’s true that in order to create something universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific, then with his fiction debut poet Keiran Goddard has written something like the universal love story. Written entirely in a kind of verse – by which I mean, a line break between almost every sentence – the three-part narrative goes like this: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets over it. Sort of. Both characters are unnamed.

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The narrator, a sometime essayist working a series of dead-end jobs, meets an editor. She has written four slim publications about Restoration drama (“smart people call short books slim books”). They fall in love; and she, at least, falls out of it. The plot is everyone’s plot, at some time or another – and that in itself is the heartbreaking thing about heartbreak. No pain is unique, and all pain is unique. This is the paradox that powers Hourglass. I have rarely read a book that captures so succinctly the way that all lovers must (at least a little bit) believe they are the only people to ever feel this feeling, and the way that that is (at least a little bit) true.

Goddard’s narrator sees the world with the accuracy of a poet and the paranoid imagination of the socially inept: he speaks with a laser-cut and very funny precision that belies the way one imagines the world must see him. Whether he’s cutting armpit holes out of his T-shirt to attend a funeral, showing a child at the swimming pool a picture of guillotines, or being frogmarched out of a party by his furious girlfriend for crimes he’s not completely sure he understands, our narrator makes perfect sense to himself. And, occasionally, to her. It’s the fact of his making sense to her that makes her love him: nobody else around him can see what he wants, and why he does the things he does.

The world of Goddard’s novel exists vividly on the page and yet to the narrator he is the only real person in it. Even the (ex-)girlfriend orbits him, in his telling, like a satellite moon. Which is, of course, the narcissism of the heartbroken. It is how it feels to be grieving; and this novel handles grief deftly and strangely. The city is “filled with wet cardboard”; he bins “whatever is bothering [him]”, such as wooden spoons and the toaster and the spice rack; he screams at a Boy Scout in the supermarket. He tears receipts into confetti at his mother’s funeral and walks until his feet bleed and tries to run a marathon one drunken morning, wearing his jumper from the night before.

Hourglass sits somewhere between prose and poetry; somewhere between millennial sensation Hera Lindsay Bird, say, and a Joycean stream-of-consciousness. Virginia Woolf called Ulysses the work of “a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples”, and there’s something sticky and masculine and physical about Hourglass: all sweat, and spit, and skin growing over Biro lids lost to an itch under pungent plaster casts. It makes the book alive. It’s disturbing, in the way that looking at the world – and at love – through someone else’s eyes would be.

There is often an artfulness to novels written in a capital-S Style: novels in verse, novels in aphorisms, novels (like this one) that are not prose, but not not prose. But the style here feels like work in the way that being a person is work; and specifically, perhaps, the way that the unnamed narrator finds being a person to be work. He tries – God, how he tries – to be human like everyone else. He wants to be ordinary, and fears he is not; he wants to be extraordinary and fears he is not. He is, of course, both.

“Love is the constant worry that someone else is dead,” the narrator tells us near the beginning, yet this is a book about someone learning to be alive; learning to love – if that’s not too big a word – oneself, and through that, the world.

Hourglass by Keiran Goddard is published by Little, Brown (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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