New Welsh Review
Hello Friend We Missed You
Richard Owain Roberts
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Hello Friend We Missed You is Richard Owain Roberts’ debut novel, and continues the characteristic bleak yet humorous style found in his previous short story collection. It’s a poignant and emotive reflection on loneliness, guilt, and personal trauma. Despite its stripped-back format, Roberts is able to perfectly capture the nihilism and pop-culture of the adult millennial generation.
The story focuses on Hill, a stalled filmmaker who returns from LA to Ynys Mon to care for his dying father, Roger. Unfortunately for Hill, his terminally ill father is arguably the least of his worries, as he himself is still overcoming the death of his wife, Lucy, an event we are led to believe has had a significant and traumatising impact on his life and career.
Upon returning to his childhood home, Hill meets Trudy, who has been employed as his father’s carer. They almost immediately develop a sexual relationship; although it is apparent that, for Hill, this is purely to fill the void of loneliness he is experiencing after the death of his wife. In fact, Hill appears to barely tolerate her, as he ‘feels sick’ when they talk, and later makes efforts to avoid her entirely.
What Roberts manages so deftly to develop in Hello Friend We Missed You is Hill’s sense of unresolved trauma, particularly the way this impacts on his everyday decisions and aspirations. Returning home clearly forces Hill to address past issues, such as his mother’s suicide, the lack of relationship with his father, and how his life compares to that of a particular old school friend. However dark these issues, Roberts explores them with humour, making Hill relatable and human. Perhaps one of the best lines in the book is in response to seeing his old school friend: ‘he could walk away victorious and tell Roger that his old friend Stuart was a balding loser with shitty prospects and no online presence.’
The main message that underscores Hill’s life is the importance of moving on. Whether this is achieved by means of telling his wife’s family where he hid her ashes, learning to care for his father, or coming to terms with his mother’s death, he grows through overcoming these difficulties. This idea is perfectly represented in both Hill’s relationship with Trudy and his relationship with Jack Black. Trudy and Hill understand their time is limited, as she is ‘moving to Australia’ for work experience, and so this forces him to accept his loss.
Similarly, ‘Jack Black bought the rights to [his] film’ several years before the events of the novel, but continuously renews it rather than making it. One of the best subplots in the novel is Hill’s increasingly strange emails to Jack Black as he learns to accept that it’s better for the film to not be made so he can look for work elsewhere. His last email shows his exasperation at being ignored by the film star:
How many times have you watched my film? A good many times I imagine, seeing as you are so enthusiastic to develop it and bring it to a ‘whole new audience’. What’s your favourite part? Specifically, and in detail. I’m looking for precision in your analysis, Jack.
The novel’s humour, seen in the above section and elsewhere, prevents it from becoming too morose. However, one of the novel’s greatest strengths is its style. Roberts has opted for a minimalist style, reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis, who was likely a big inspiration here. Evoked primarily through a stream of consciousness form, this is tuned to convey major theme: how communication has been impacted by short-form text such as emails and text messages, which are both prominent in the novel.
Similarly, the lack of speech marks and traditional paragraphs amplify this fluid mode, and while this might have led to repetitive dialogue tagging (‘Hill says’ or ‘thinks Hill’), the reader is somehow not distracted. Rather, these recurrent suffixes reflect the repetitive nature of the protagonist’s painful everyday life. When we are presented with sections such as ‘It’s hot, Hill thinks. Should sunbathe, Hill thinks,’ we are reminded in a fairly obvious – yet fitting – way that we are constantly inside Hill’s head, and that we are seeing the world through his eyes.
What is particularly interesting is that very few of Hill’s issues are actually resolved. Trudy moves away, his father dies but the remaining characters never appear to work through things, and we never find out about Hill’s mother’s suicide. However, he is clearly able to move on, as he ‘emailed Lucy’s parents about the ashes’ and uses Roger’s death as an incentive to clear out his mother’s belongings. If the novel is about learning to live with the least amount of suffering, then it’s clear that Hill achieves this by the end.
While the subject matter might be serious, Roberts’ treatment makes this a very enjoyable read. His writing style is witty and hard-hitting, and there’s little “filler” in the novel to hide behind. The result is an interesting and thought-provoking novel that leads us to question how we deal with such serious issues in a world of over sharing through media.
Jacob Powell is a reviewer-in-residence, in a project in partnership with Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities.
Hello Friend We Missed You won the Not the Booker Prize in October. This review was originally published on 30 June 2020.