Stage plight

First act’s siz­zle makes up for sec­ond-half fiz­zle

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

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.


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