Hitching a ride to hell
THEBUSONTHURSDAY SHIRLEY BARRETT Fleet, 272pp, £12.99
Absurdist fiction proves a fitting genre for Shirley Barrett’s The Bus on Thursday, the story of a young Australian woman diagnosed with breast cancer. The illness alienates teacher Eleanor Mellett from her family, friends and peers, leaving her eventually in remission but struggling to start over: “After all, I used to have a life, a job, a boyfriend who adored me, two exceptional breasts and a one-bedroom apartment in Annandale. Now, I’m an unemployed thirty-one-year-old living with my mother in Greencare.”
Remission is better than the alternative, but its reality is stark: months of chemo, a mastectomy, and five years of Tamoxifen, a hormone suppressant that rules out pregnancy until Eleanor’s late 30s – if she’s lucky. The Bus on Thursday, Barrett’s second novel, tackles the absurdity of surviving cancer in a zany, energetic tale that doesn’t quite come off. In a similar vein to Patty Yumi Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, Barrett’s novel is as highly original in concept and as funny in parts, but lacks the former’s rigour in style and language.
Putting her award-winning screenwriting and film directing credits to use, the Australian writer sets Eleanor’s remission story against a backdrop of madcap, gory scenarios that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Tarantino movie. To kick-start her remission, Eleanor relocates from Sydney to rural Australia, arriving in Talbingo to take over the role of local schoolteacher following the mysterious disappearance of the beloved Miss Barker.
What follows is impossible to summarise coherently, and all the more enjoyable for it: sinister reservoirs (think The Returned Season 1), dead bodies, kangaroo stalking, religious exorcisms, a rigor mortis hand with a mind of its own, humping adolescents, and the titular bus “for the afflicted” that seems more interested in knocking Eleanor down than offering her a lift.
The Bus on Thursday is black and profane in its comedy – scenes of paedophilia are mixed with cupcake baking – and the force of its humour shocks the reader into realising the desperate loneliness of cancer. Eleanor is an angry young woman, raging that her friends are progressing with their lives while she goes through the shocking transformations of the illness.
Barrett is brilliant on the details of diagnosis and the isolation her protagonist feels at the hands of doctors: “My not being relaxed enough while they flattened my breast like a hamburger patty and blasted it with radiation was causing them problems.”
Eleanor comes on to her elderly GP, gets kicked out of a support group, and has a meltdown in a clothes shop when the snooty sales assistant won’t let her return a bra: “The fact remains that I did get breast cancer, and something most certainly gave it to me, so why not the lingerie department of a large department store?” Further humour/horror comes through in the selfishness of her friends as they fail to empathise, and in the reaction of a new date to her mastectomy: “I mean that he sat right back on the couch and said, ‘Whoa. Whoa,’ like I’d turned into a rattlesnake.”
The whipsmart humour and pinpoint detail of the early chapters gets lost in Talbingo, however, as Eleanor goes further down the rabbit hole. Predicaments are still funny – a murderous love interest; a school secretary who “lurks, like a large, dumpy passive-aggressive spider” – but the chaos needs to be underpinned by a sharper voice. The conceit of the novel, a blog that Eleanor starts writing to document her illness, proves to be its downfall.
The clipped sentences don’t flow well and the conversational tone frequently veers into a whiny overshare: “I’m so angry with Sally, I’m just going to cut her off for a while. This whole thing has set me back emotionally six months, just when I was starting to feel strong again. Not to mention confirmed all my fears about dating.”
On comparing herself to the lauded Miss Barker, Eleanor explains, “No wonder the children love her. No wonder they don’t warm to me. Me and my never-ending personal dramas. My love bites and my hangovers. My screeching the f-bomb at them.” The problem with tone is compounded by prosaic descriptions and frequently clichéd writing – like a house on fire; on demand around the clock 24/7; pulling out all stops; stabs of jealousy, and, in a line that is typical of Eleanor’s over-emoting, “sharp pangs of intense loneliness combined with a dull ache of gnawing anxiety”.
Despite its obvious farcical overtones, the cumulative effect is that not enough care has been taken with language or editing. It is a shame as Barrett’s excellent debut novel Rush Oh!, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016, shows ample skills in that department. As her new story hurtles along to its outrageous end, it is lines like these that sparkle from the ditches: “Because you’re either growing a baby or you’re growing a tumour. You can’t do both.” Mostly though, this bus goes by too fast to notice.
Shirley Barrett: brilliant on the details of the isolation her protagonist feels