Better than this

The incredible debut novel of Rose Marzin

Better than this, Lucid Dreamers Publications, 2022

Welcome to Horton, Ms Calder. Your flat is on the top floor, in a building where the lift doesn’t work, because the neighbourhood is not the greatest so there is no point in having welcoming, well looked-after places. It’s dangerous to go out when the sky is dark, hence take the stairs all the way up and stay there until the following day. Your house is smaller and not as nice as you saw it in the pictures, but it’s a roof on top of your head, and you will need it if you want to go to that cooking school you are so desperate to attend, you even left your husband in Boston for it. Oh, and by the way, the U-Haul van you rented must be returned by 6pm, otherwise you will have to pay for another day of rental with money you don’t really have. Have a great day!

For four months, she had tried her best to find out about this town-like-a-thousand-other-towns but even Horton’s own municipal website strained for reasons anybody might want to visit.

This is, in summary, what Taamarai faces as soon as she steps out of the van. Alone, in a new city, with not a shoulder to cry on, not even her husband’s. Despite Darren’s big speeches of support, proudness and reassurance that everything will be ok, he actually opposed her decision to move from Boston to follow her, as he was unwilling to leave his job, his family and all his friends. We will find out later in the story that he is not able to keep a job longer than a month (‘the boss hates me, the atmosphere is too negative, the hours are exhausting’); his friends either moved away or moved on with their lives and his beloved family consists of his mother, doing everything for him despite him being married and already over 30, and his father letting him live for free in the spare room at the back of the house. 

Once inside her new home, Taamarai tries the lift, but an unfamiliar voice announces it’s broken. When she turns towards the noise, she patches it to a girl, around 14, with black, wild hair and a black music band hoodie perched on the stairs one flight up. She introduces herself as Ali and offers to help Taamarai with her stuff. Taamarai’s apartment is right above Ali’s and the layout is the same. But while Taamarai is happy with the house and picks the smaller bedroom for herself, Ali seems confused by her choices.

“It’s just me,” Taamarai confirmed with a jolt of sadness. “My husband, Darren, can’t move down here just yet.”

After many trips up and down, Ali stops on the fifth floor. Her father, a hardened face, barefoot man with grey hair and an impolite look, eventually introduces himself as Carl Grigg. And since Taamarai has still a few boxes to unload, the van has to be returned by six and Ali was promised pizza in exchange for her help, Carl steps in to help too. It’s the beginning of an unconventional but solid friendship between the three of them, made of home-cooked meals, card games, football matches on TV and chats about their days and life events.

Unfortunately, Darren’s shadow looms on this newfound life balance: he texts Taamarai almost constantly, complaining about feeling lonely without her, asking her when she will make it home, and keeping her on the phone for hours on end, even if between the school and her part-time job at a nearby restaurant during weekends, Taaamarai’s time is very little and extremely precious. Marzin does an amazing job at painting him for what he really is from the very first pages: a controlling, manipulative, toxic example of grown-up boy, who thinks the world has to bow in front of him just because he breathes. The naturalness with which she portrays him is almost scary, worthy of a real-life event anecdote recounted in a psychology essay.

But despite his controlling manners, Darren is still miles away from Taamarai and Horton. Even then, he still manages to do damage. It’s Christmas day, Darren already promised to go and visit, but he pulled out at the last minute saying he wasn’t feeling well. 

 “Guess you can’t get your money back now?”

Taamarai glared at him but still ended up saying the things she normally kept in her head. “If he’d told me yesterday, I could’ve got half back, but he left it until after the bus had already gone.”

They promised to cook breakfast together and keep up, despite the physical distance, with their tradition of having at least Christmas Morning breakfast together, since the rest of their day was usually devoted to answering phone calls and dealing with relatives, Christmas dinners and friends. But instead of being nice and supportive, Darren – surprise, surprise! – complains about everything once again. Of course, it drives Taamarai crazy. It drove me crazy, and I was only reading it! But that’s another great thing about Marzin’s writing: she is so good that the feelings and emotions of the story jump off the page. Of all the self-published books I’ve read so far, except for a couple of diamonds in the rough (which will greatly benefit from thorough editing and some constructive criticism), this is the only book that could potentially go straight on Waterstone’s shelves, and you couldn’t tell the difference with a Penguin Random House book.

The story continues and His Highness Horrid Darren finally decides that he could gift his wife with his presence.

He got up, wandered around and dumped his bag in the bedroom, his rucksack in the hall. Taamarai immediately wanted to clear up, and then felt guilty.

“I’d have put the bed in the other room. It’s bigger.”

She had explained her choice of bedroom when she moved in, and he hadn’t seemed to notice or care. “I know it’s bigger,” she repeated now, “but I only sleep in it and keep clothes in the wardrobe. There’s more space for books and my desk in the other room.”

“Don’t you think it’s a bit cramped having all of your books out like this?”

“No.” Taamarai couldn’t think of anything else to say.

He looked at a large picture on the wall. It was by the same artist as the painting she had bought Ali for Christmas. High buildings climbed towards a bright turquoise and orange sky. “Babe, do you mind if we take that one down?”

Taamarai frowned. “Why?”

“Well, I mean, it doesn’t make any sense. The colors are all wrong. Don’t you think it looks a bit silly?”

“I like it.” Taamarai couldn’t help feeling hurt, and it showed in her voice.


She wondered why he thought she had bought it in the first place.

He shrugged. “I guess you could put it in the other room. It’s kind of your workspace. Anyway, I brought a great photo from our wedding. Mom had it framed for us. It would look great there and it’ll help me feel like this is my home, too.”

Dealing with Darren’s presence in the book is challenging, to say the least. There are many more conversations similar to this where all you want is pull your hair and grind your teeth while shaking Taamarai hard, like she was a rag doll. However, all this annoyance is compensated by the flourishing relationship between Carl, Ali and Taamarai. They help each other in more than one occasion (Carl offers his sofa to Taamarai to sleep on when she can’t stand Darren’s presence, Taamarai goes to Ali’s school to discuss about her suspension) and the crescendo will take you till the very end, with secrets revealed, heated arguments, break-ups and new starts.

Despite being marketed as romance, I strongly believe this book doesn’t fit the category, because it’s one step above being simple romance. This is romantic fiction in its purest form, it touches delicate themes (abuse, rape, toxic relationships, criminal convictions, family issues), but it does it with tact and simplicity, without dwelling or lecturing. It’s a great read, it’s entertaining, somehow comforting, and most importantly it makes you think. A book I would happily keep a hard copy of on my already crowded bookshelf.

All we can do now is wait for the next! Great job, Rose!

Get your copy on Amazon.

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