First act’s sizzle makes up for second-half fizzle
Fthe fourth novel by British writer Sadie Jones, chronicles the fevered lives of young artists making their way in the London theatre of the early 1970s, a time of change and intense energy fuelled by unstoppable personal and professional ambition. Jones, winner of the Costa FFirst Novel Award for The Outcast, writes with elegance, style and, most noticeably, a kind of filmic sense — not a surprise from someone who wrote screenplays for many years.
In the (better) first half of her story of Luke Kanowski — a provincial, talented wannabe pplaywright who ends up in London allied with ambitious producer Paul Driscoll and Paul’s versatile girlfriend, Leigh Radley — she is able to effortlessly cross-cut from one character’s point of view to another’s. We are with the characters as with the camera. It is a technique that makes us care, for a while, about Luke as he leaves behind his unfortunate family life to the well-observed small theatre world of high ambition and little money. A parallel story follows Nina Jacobs, an aspiring actress of some talent, burdened by her mother’s emotional baggage, but better-connected theatrically than young rebels Paul and Luke. She marries Tony Moore, a charming, manipulative West End producer who is sexually and emotionally controlling. Eventually, or maybe fatefully, Luke and Nina meet (proving the theatre world is a small one, even in London). Their love is mainly obsession; also, for Nina, a furtive break from Tony. To this point, the novel intrigues, as Jones takes her time with the plot and characters as we wait for the inevitable meeting, and its aftermath in both Nina’s and Luke’s other relationships. The idea permeating the story here is that you can’t control who you love, and it is smartly rendered. The second part of the novel is about that aftermath, and here the book slips away into the unsurprising, bordering on cliché. Even Jones’ splendid technique falters, as the stylistic choice of point of view becomes narrower and more conventional. The aftermath section sees Luke, now sought after for his latest play, betray those closest to him (for Nina’s sake) while she returns to Tony. Her motives are mixed and, from the reader’s standpoint, unconvincing — she likes the humiliation because it’s what she knows. In any case, after her return, Tony becomes, equally unconvincingly, more loving. There’s a feeling of literary wheels spinning in this section, redeemed somewhat near the end when Luke makes peace with Paul. This truce — after Luke betrays Paul by taking his play away from Paul’s theatre — is made at the funeral of Luke’s poor, mentally ill mother. Luke knows his youth has ended, and the sense of loss in his realization is quite moving. If the rest of the final section had this force, the novel would be the powerhouse it initially promised. In the epilogue, Luke ends up with Leigh, who had always carried a crush for him, though she couldn’t articulate it — and the cliché appears. The interesting idea of not controlling who you love becomes contrived.
It’s not fate that finally guides these characters, but the need for a happy — or cinematically Hollywood — ending. Still, there’s much to admire in this novel about the exigencies of love, being young and truly growing up, delivered in its masterly first half with force and style, keeping the reader going through its weaker second half.
Rory Runnells is the artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.