First- per­son angst

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - JEN­NIFER MO­RAN

IT struck me, four parts into th­ese five books by young Bri­tish and North Amer­i­can au­thors, that if it is true that early writ­ing has an el­e­ment of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, our new writ­ers must be liv­ing in a mi­lieu of ca­sual drug­tak­ing, drunk­en­ness, pro­fan­ity, men­tal ill­ness and crime. So, by the time I read the fifth, Lauren Fox’s Still Life with Hus­band ( Vin­tage, 296pp, $ 26.35), its mid­dle- class angst seemed al­most other- worldly. It isn’t re­ally. It me­an­ders through the ter­ri­tory tack­led by Lionel Shriver in The Post- Birth­day World : be­trayal and the con­se­quences of choice. Fox’s nar­ra­tor, Emily, a lik­able writer loaded with the dis­quiet of un­re­alised am­bi­tion and liv­ing with a hus­band whose vi­sion of her is stul­ti­fy­ingly do­mes­tic, first vac­il­lates and then steps firmly across that wa­ver­ing line. A sec­ond theme emerges in that fash­ion­able pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of thir­tysome­things: the moth­er­hood dilemma. Still Life with Hus­band is charm­ing in part, largely be­cause of the suc­cess of Fox’s evo­ca­tion of Emily. But be­cause Emily even­tu­ally nar­rows her fo­cus to her own sur­vival, al­most ex­clud­ing the perspectives of her hus­band Kevin and lover David, the book doesn’t live up to its writer’s ob­vi­ous tal­ents.

That evo­ca­tion of a nar­ra­tor’s char­ac­ter is very im­por­tant in first- per­son nar­ra­tive, the cho­sen form of all four nov­els and half the short sto­ries in Rachel Trezise’s Fresh Ap­ples ( Text, 198pp, $ 22.95). Trezise man­ages those nar­ra­tives adroitly, with fas­ci­nat­ing voices and a re­fresh­ing lack of self- ob­ses­sion. Pre­vi­ously much praised for her novel In and Out of the Gold­fish Bowl , Trezise brings an acute eye and a fluid pen to all th­ese sto­ries, mak­ing the most un­sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ters and their most un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tions vi­tally in­ter­est­ing to the reader.

Less ap­peal­ing is the nar­ra­tor of Clare Al­lan’s Poppy Shake­speare ( Blooms­bury, 334pp, $ 22.95). Per­cep­tu­ally chal­lenged and emo­tion­ally stunted, N is our guide as well as Poppy’s through the Dorothy Fish hospi­tal in north Lon­don, where the day pa­tients are drib­blers, the res­i­den­tial pa­tients are flops, and peo­ple out in the world, liv­ing a well- to- do life, are sniffs. N’s life has been ap­palling and her men­tal ill­nesses have long de­fined her ex­is­tence. She has spent 13 years at the Dorothy Fish and, like the other pa­tients, wants to stay. Poppy, on the other hand, doesn’t want to be there at all. The book’s ti­tle pre­dis­poses us to think her story is cen­tral but in fact Poppy sim­ply pro­vides the ve­hi­cle for N’s view of life, the hospi­tal and the bizarre, labyrinthine reg­u­la­tions that gov­ern the men­tal health bu­reau­cracy. There’s a lot of te­dium be­fore we are en­gaged, by N or by the story. Al­lan does of­fer flashes of bril­liant satire — mid­dle- class Michael’s speech about the pol­i­tics and eco­nomics of mad­ness, for ex­am­ple — and there are oc­ca­sional macabre wit­ti­cisms that make one laugh out loud. But Poppy Shake­speare is not, as the cover gush sug­gests, in the league of Catch- 22 or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest .

Lost Girls and Love Ho­tels by Catherine Han­ra­han ( Si­mon & Schus­ter, 208pp, $ 29.95) has a lovely cover and the blurb prom­ises some­thing in­ter­est­ing: a miss­ing girl, whom the nar­ra­tor, Mar­garet, a Cana­dian liv­ing in Ja­pan, be­comes con­vinced she has seen alive. Mar­garet’s job is teach­ing wannabe air stew­ards, a process of ap­ply­ing pat­terns of pro­pri­ety to sit­u­a­tions that threaten to get out of con­trol. But noth­ing in Mar­garet’s life is un­der con­trol. She has left a mess in Canada and her nights are spent in pur­suit of obliv­ion or ca­sual sex. She takes up with Kazu, an eru­dite gang­ster, meet­ing him in a se­ries of hired rooms.

The end­ing of this novel, at once dra­matic and po­etic, would have had so much more im­pact had the tale that pre­ceded it been more finely drawn. As it is, the sense one has con­stantly is of an intelligence never fully switched on and dis­ap­point­ment at the lack of de­vel­op­ment of the theme of the miss­ing girl.

The most com­pelling nar­ra­tor in this batch is Lily in Ray Robin­son’s Elec­tric­ity ( Pi­cador, 334pp, $ 22.95). Feisty, self- suf­fi­cient, 30, she works in an ar­cade and has no con­tact with her fam­ily. Epilepsy cour­ses elec­tric­ity through her. At the start of the novel she gets the news that her mother is gravely ill. Her mother who threw her down the stairs. In the af­ter­math of her mother’s death, one of her brothers, Barry, finds her and Lily be­gins to grow hopes of be­long­ing. In search of her other brother, Mikey, she goes to Lon­don. There she makes a friend, Mel, falls in love with Dave, rides the roller- coaster of med­i­ca­tion and fit­ting and be­trayal and de­spair. It sounds de­press­ing but it’s not; Robin­son makes Lily an in­domitable spirit, a sur­vivor who has honed a phi­los­o­phy that is a chal­lenge to us all: Thrash, get up, get on with it.’’

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