Hitch­ing a ride to hell

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - SARAH GILMARTIN


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

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