Better by Far: A Novel

Better by Far: A Novel

by Hazel Hayes
Better by Far: A Novel

Better by Far: A Novel

by Hazel Hayes


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Notes From Your Bookseller

Secrets. An insidious past. If — like us — you fell in love with Hazel Hayes breakthrough hit Out of Love, you'll find her crackerjack new novel a total delight, as it hits tropes from horror to romance and points in between.

One of Zibby Mag's Most Anticipated Books Coming Out in 2024 | One of SheNet's Highly Anticipated Books of 2024

A genre-bending story about love and loss, hope and heartbreak, and the healing to be found in life’s little limbos, those in-between spaces where you’re no longer who you were and not yet the person you will be

About her debut, Out of Love, Hazel Hayes said, “The journey from writing horror to writing love stories was a short one. There is nothing more horrific than love.” In her new novel, she sets out to prove it.
This genre-defying, meta-modern novel is unlike anything you have ever read, and yet at its core it is a story we all deeply understand. A story of love and liminality, and the ways in which grief grips us all. Prepare to laugh and cry; Hazel Hayes will break your heart, but then she’ll mend it for you.
Following a breakup, Kate and Finn decide to keep sharing their house until the lease runs out in twelve weeks’ time, alternating week by week so that they are occupying the same space but never at the same time.
Practically, the plan makes sense, but coming back each Sunday to a home where Finn has been and gone feels far too much like living with a ghost. Kate lost her mother at a young age and now this fresh grief dredges unhealed sorrows up to the surface, and soon, Kate finds herself adrift in her own subconscious, trapped in the liminal space between loving someone and letting go.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593472958
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/23/2024
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 31,225
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Hazel Hayes is an Irish-born, London-based writer and director who for many years wrote primarily for the screen. After graduating from Dublin City University with a degree in journalism, she went on to study creative writing at the Irish Writers Centre, before honing her craft as a screenwriter through numerous short films and sketches. Her eight-part horror, PrankMe, won series of the year at Social in the City, as well as the award for excellence in storytelling at Buffer Festival in Toronto. Out of Love was her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

Till February

I'm supposed to be writing a book, but instead I find myself writing to you. I prepare the blank page, ready to pour myself onto it, but all that comes out is your absence, which feels so much more like a presence. How odd that the language of grief is one of loss-people describe feeling empty, hollow, carved out-when for me, grief is heavy. There's a weight to it. A density.

In Irish we don't say I am sad; we say tá brón orm-there is sadness on me. And we don't say someone is grieving, we say they are faoi mhéala-under grief. The phrase "going into mourning" literally translates as "putting on a robe of sorrow." We wear our feelings, wrapping them around ourselves like cloaks that separate us from the world, and grief is the heaviest one of all.

Today, unsatisfied with simply weighing me down, grief finds a way to slip inside me, filling me up like some tar-like creature that clogs my throat and lungs and crams itself into the cavities between my organs. You've only been gone a few hours and already I am turgid with the lack of you.

I say you’re gone, but you’re not really. Not yet. Your clothes are still hanging in the wardrobe. Your CDs are stacked, alphabetically, on the shelf above the stereo. Your squash racket is over there by the door-you said you wouldn’t need it this week. You even left your passport here, in the top drawer of your bedside table; it occurred to me just moments ago to check if it was there, and I must admit my relief in finding it. Not that it matters where you are, I suppose, if we won’t be seeing each other anyway; it’s just easier knowing you’re stuck here too-in drizzly, dark Dublin, where places carry with them reminders of me-and not sitting at a table by some quaint town square, in Paris perhaps, or maybe Croatia. Yeah, that feels right-Croatia. With its mild evenings, cobbled streets, and local beer on tap. Local women too-all of them perfect, in your eyes, because you don’t know them yet, haven’t fought with them yet, haven’t seen them sick or sad or suicidal.

Perched on the edge of our bed, with your passport in my hands, I picture one of these women approaching you with an easy smile, all-over tan, and oodles of sympathy for the brokenhearted boy reading a book outside her favourite café. I let myself linger on the scene for far too long, right up to the point where you wake up face down, ass out, legs tangled in her ridiculously white sheets. The whole scene, in fact, is impossibly white, bright to the point of overexposure. She opens her eyes, stretches her long limbs. One corner of her mouth curls up. "Good morning," she purrs.

Stop it, I tell myself, flinging your passport back in the drawer. He isn't in Croatia. He's in his brother's filthy flat in Lucan.

Unfortunately, knowing a story isn't real doesn't make the feelings it evokes any less real. And so I'm left with all the jealousy and rage churned up by my own pathetic work of fiction.

Why can't I write an actual work of fiction?

A real writer would spin this breakup into gold. A real writer would chew it up and spit out a novel so magnificent it would make all the heartbreak worthwhile. Cure it, even. A real writer would sell a million copies and buy herself a mansion paid for with pain.

I mentally fast-forward to this imaginary point in my future, when I stand at the summit of my dreams and look back down at the jagged path I climbed to get there. It's so clear that I can almost taste how thin the air is. But then I remember I'm still at the bottom of the mountain, just a sad little Sisyphus with a book to write and a heart to mend, and today, both tasks seem equally insurmountable.

My shoulders slump forward, like my skeleton has suddenly vanished, leaving the vague shape of a human behind. I slide, sluglike, onto your side of the bed and instantly begin to cry. It's not a particularly loud or deliberate cry-my face doesn't contort or change-I just stare at the wall as tears flow involuntarily down my face, like blood pouring from a wound. I hate these walls. These bare, eggshell walls. I hate the potential I saw in them.

Your mother calls at two o’clock. I peel my face off the soggy pillow and pick up, half expecting an onslaught of concern over our breakup, maybe even a plea for me to call you, to make up, to make it work. Instead, she asks if we’ve made plans for Christmas yet.

She doesn't know.

And I'm certainly not going to tell her.

I say we'll get back to her and I hang up as fast as I can. Then I think about Christmas without you, and I resume crying. Hours pass. But when I check the clock again it's only eight minutes past two.

I am all too familiar with this feeling of time distended; when my mother died, time ceased to behave as it had before. It was a Wednesday afternoon. I was nine years old and idling in a geography class when it happened. She drowned in a freak current just off Colligeen Beach, not far from our home. At her wake I heard someone say one of her lungs had ruptured. Though I didn’t know what “ruptured” meant then, I looked it up later in my father’s dusty blue thesaurus, scraping one glittery pink fingernail down the list of increasingly upsetting words.

Crack. Fracture. Split. Breach. Burst.

Strangely, there was no word in that book, nor have I found one since, that conveyed how I felt that day, the day her body lay shrouded in our dining room. "Grief" doesn't even come close-its paltry five letters no less crude a symbol of the thing they are supposed to represent than a stick-figure drawing of a person; they lack all the nuance, magnitude, and magic of the real thing.

As a sign of respect, all four clocks in the house were stopped for her. Even the imposing grandfather clock in the hallway stood idle, its pendulum hanging limp as a broken limb. But time didn't stop with them. It didn't even have the courtesy to slow down, though I was positive it had. Time, unticking, ticked on. The clocks caught up. And so, too, did the calendar in the kitchen, which was dutifully flipped at the dawn of each new month. Counting ever further away from her.

My mother's death was like a puncture in the fabric of my existence, beginning as a pinprick and expanding outwards to become a gaping black hole around which every other moment seemed to catch and drag. Minutes, hours, days, all spiralled inexorably inwards, endlessly elongated by the brutal pull of that tiny, terrifying iris, that ineluctable instant, from which no light or life could possibly escape. My mother was in there, I was sure of it, beyond the event horizon, alive, preserved, pristine, just as she had been, but neither one of us could cross it; she couldn't exist after that point, and I could never return to a time before it. Nor could I move forward, it seemed, to the day it didn't hurt anymore, when time resumed moving at a regular pace. I was trapped in the space between grief and healing, no longer the person I was, not yet the person I would be, with no choice but to endure it.

Now here I am again. Trapped. Waiting. Enduring.

Scientists call it spaghettification, the stretching out of matter towards a singularity. That's how life felt. Spaghettified. Each new feeling was eternal while it lasted. Each new experience unnaturally prolonged. Even memories grew misshapen in that place, malformed by the gravity of my loss. Sometimes, still, the days and dates surrounding her death are indistinguishable. My father shows me photographs from that year and I feign recognition as he smiles down at some grainy six-by-four scene. All I see are spectres of myself: roller-skating down my street, blowing out ten candles, holding up a small glass trophy-I'm told I won a local spelling competition.

Maybe I should have been honest with your mam. But what would I have said? I imagine now, aloud, how that conversation would have gone . . . “Hi, Ruth. No, I won’t be joining you for Christmas . . . Finn and I broke up . . . We’re still living together . . . Well, we live in the same place, just not at the same time . . . Yes, Ruth, I know that’s insane. Oh, and while I have you, can I get the recipe for your vegan lasagne please?”

I decided to give up milk last week after seeing a video of a calf being taken from its mother. They drove him away in the back of a truck and the mama cow chased him for as long as she could before finally giving up. She just stood in the middle of the road, wailing.

"That's it," I announced, pouring my tea away. "I'm never drinking milk again." And to your credit you didn't say or do anything derisive. The next day, you went out and bought me a carton of oat milk, and that was that.

I digress. Our plan is absolutely ludicrous. What were we thinking? I’m sure it made sense at the time, but now I’m struggling to remember. I wish you were here to explain it again.

We made the decision last night following a ridiculous argument that was entirely unnecessary-I couldn’t even tell you now how it started-and almost comical in its ugliness. We said things I know we didn’t mean. Things designed with the sole intent of causing pain. At one point, you looked me dead in the eyes and said, “I don’t like you.”


I mean, I know you love me. Despite it all, I know you love me. And I love you too. But loving someone and liking someone are two very different things. Loving someone is almost an impulse, a physiological response to your shared experiences. Loving someone means that their absence would make you sad, but their presence doesn't necessarily make you happy. That's reserved for liking someone-liking who they are, liking who you are around them, and therefore wanting to spend time with them. So basically what you said is that if I died tomorrow you'd be sad, but while I'm still living, you'd rather not be near me, if it's all the same.

As soon as the words left your mouth you stopped, and I stopped too. Like a pair of windup toys who'd been noisily oscillating on the carpet, we both ran out of steam and froze. Then you held your arms out and I fell into them, burying my face in your chest.

"This has to stop," I cried. You didn't disagree.

I can't remember when the world last slowed around us like it did then. We didn't stir. Or even sway. We just held each other and our breath as the moment ballooned outwards, holding us in a grasp as gentle as a daydream, and just as delicate.

The spell was broken when the doorbell rang, and we both started breathing again.

"I'll get it," I said, gathering myself.

There were three small ghosts on the doorstep, each one around hip height. They stood stock-still, silently staring up at me through circular black eyes. I waited a while for them to speak, but they said nothing. Eventually, one of them produced a plastic bucket from underneath his sheet and the others followed suit.

"Aren't you supposed to say 'trick or treat'?" I asked. Still nothing. One ghost shuffled slightly on the step.

"Fair enough," I said, grabbing a handful of Mars bars from the stash I'd left by the door and dropping them into the buckets. The ghosts nodded their satisfaction and went on their way, but as the last one turned to leave, he paused.

"Ghosts can't talk," he confided in an almost whisper, before tottering off after his friends and leaving me in the doorway, avoiding the conversation I knew we were about to have. The air was laced with smoke from nearby bonfires, and across the street another group of kids were calling door-to-door, tripping over skirts and capes as they went.

Give me autumn any day. Give me precious days made more precious by encroaching night, and halos of lamplight through fine rain. Give me crisp orange leaves that crunch underfoot, hands warmed by hot chocolate in thick ceramic mugs, and people planted firmly next to log fires, their bodies blocking the heat for the rest of us. Give me pumpkins and candles and kids heaving stolen shopping trolleys up muddy hills, full of wood for the bonfire.

I'm not one for sticky summer nights or sleeping before it's dark outside. And I could do without the eruption of freckles on my face after a solitary day of sun. But autumn, and the buildup to Halloween especially, was always my favourite time of year. Probably because it was hers.

When I was little, my mother would tell me stories about Samhain, the pagan festival that marked the end of the harvest season and the onset of winter. She said that on Oíche Shamhna-the eve of Samhain, which later became Halloween-the boundary between this world and the otherworld was thin, so people would disguise themselves to hide from the Aos Sí: spirits who crossed the thinning threshold into our world for the night. Most ghosts weren't dangerous, she assured me; they only wanted to visit. That was why she set a place at the table each year for her parents, who had passed, "just in case they wanted to stop by." But then there were the Unseelie, evil faeries who played horrible tricks on mortals for fun. Whenever my mam mentioned them she'd pretend to look around warily, as though she were afraid they might be listening. They were the ones to watch out for, she told me; they were the reason we hid behind masks and filled the house with friends and games and laughter till the sun rose and the veil thickened once again.

She and I would spend months planning matching costumes, then present our creations to my dad, who gladly wore whatever he was told to. Even my first Halloween, before I was in on the joke, they hosted a party as Gomez and Morticia Addams, with me as baby Pubert. My mam's sleek black hair was perfect for that one, but she had to don a blonde wig the year we dressed up as Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli. She looked radiant in a forest-green cape she'd sewn herself, complete with an elvish leaf broach. Meanwhile, my clothes were stuffed full of newspapers, and my ginger hair was backcombed and wild. I spent most of the night sucking Fanta through a hole in my beard and brandishing a plastic axe above my head. That was my last Halloween with her.

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