BOOKS: Jus­tine Et­tler’s Bo­hemia Beach.

Jessie Cole’s Stay­ing. Sofija Ste­fanovic’s Miss Ex-Yu­goslavia.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents -

It’s been a long time be­tween drinks for Jus­tine Et­tler. Mar­i­lyn’s Al­most Ter­mi­nal

New York Ad­ven­ture, Et­tler’s pre­vi­ous novel, was re­leased in 1996, and her de­but prior to that, The River Ophe­lia, saw her her­alded as a star of ’90s grunge lit along­side the likes of An­drew McGa­han and Linda Jaivin. Her new novel, Bo­hemia Beach, is an am­bi­tious and flawed at­tempt to con­nect ad­dic­tion with per­sonal, in­ter­gen­er­a­tional and na­tional post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, while also ref­er­enc­ing the Gothic Bron­tës and Kun­dera, among oth­ers.

Bo­hemia Beach is the story of Cather­ine Bell, an al­co­holic, in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous con­cert pian­ist, as she wakes from a dream-filled coma in a hospi­tal in Lon­don. How did she get there? She re­mem­bers back to the ben­der from hell in Prague, tee­ter­ing on the edge of pro­fes­sional and per­sonal dis­as­ter. Her pre­vi­ous con­cert was a shocker – Cathy was so pissed she fell off the front of the stage and then woke “in the Amer­i­can am­bas­sador’s res­i­dence in bed with two guys I didn’t know”. She lost a lu­cra­tive record­ing deal and is on the verge of be­ing dumped by her long-suf­fer­ing agent. Now the big­gest con­cert of her life, her pro­fes­sional last chance, is just days away in New York. She’s newly sep­a­rated from her hus­band, and her ter­mi­nally ill mother, Czech-born Odette, has ab­sconded from her own Lon­don hospi­tal. Cathy’s sure she’s seen Odette out of the cor­ner of her eye, lurk­ing here in Prague.

Cathy’s also just met and al­ready fallen in love with smoul­der­ing dis­so­lute play­wright To­mas (who calls Cathy by her mid­dle name, Tereza – less Wuther­ing Heights, more The Un­bear­able Light­ness of Be­ing). To­mas is pos­si­bly also sleep­ing with sexy lap dancer and for­mer sex slave Anna. He’s also 50 to Cathy’s 25, and there’s some­thing strange about his re­ac­tions when­ever Cathy men­tions her mother, who is 46. They were both bal­let dancers; did To­mas know her mother in the years of com­mu­nist rule? To­mas’s friends are also weird, as if they know some­thing Cathy doesn’t. It’s only her “Bos­nian refugee guru”, Nelly, whom she trusts, and Cathy pays her ex­trav­a­gantly for both in-per­son and tele­phone coach­ing and ad­vice.

Et­tler plants her flag early, in this meld­ing of the per­sonal and the po­lit­i­cal. Mu­sic fea­tures heav­ily due to Cathy’s work, and car­ries some of the the­matic bur­den, but the true sym­phony of Cathy’s life is her drink­ing. Nelly neatly sums up Cathy’s prob­lems as de­riv­ing from her “... gen­er­a­tions of trauma on both a per­sonal and a na­tional scale ... his­tory of re­la­tion­ships, all those ad­dicts and abu­sive men. That whole Stock­holm syn­drome thing.”

The tone is weighty and se­ri­ous through­out, but the char­ac­ter of Cathy is prob­lem­atic. From the per­spec­tive of the story it’s hard to un­der­stand Et­tler’s large cast try­ing, with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess and self-in­ter­est, to ei­ther save Cathy from drink­ing her­self to death, or else fall­ing hope­lessly in love with her at first sight.

Cathy is ut­terly charm­less and pretty dim, without the small­est amount of charisma that one might ex­pect in a pro­fes­sional per­former cov­er­ing up a life-threat­en­ing al­co­holism.

On a deeper level, as a nar­ra­tor she’s self-aware for most of the book, de­spite be­ing smashed or hun­gover. She has clear in­sight even as she rises on un­steady feet, when she’s drunk, when she’s “Qui­etly stonkered, the coke and booze buzzing around in­side me in a sat­is­fy­ing way …” and when the coke fo­cus starts to fade – all nar­rated in present tense. De­luded and/or de­ranged first-per­son nar­ra­tors are a high­wire act: think Pi Pa­tel, Hum­bert Hum­bert or the nar­ra­tor of Fight Club. De­spite Cathy’s ex­treme sub­stance and per­son­al­ity is­sues, for most of the novel she’s in con­trol, sharply ob­serv­ing her own chaotic de­scent. She’s also aware of her mo­ti­va­tions. “I know, I know,” Cathy says, in re­sponse to Nelly’s blunt assess­ment. “Al­co­holism is a se­ri­ous dis­ease, I drink to re­lieve my PTSD, I know all that ...” This know­ing qual­ity makes for a strangely dis­tant nar­ra­tion, de­spite the con­ceit that we’re in­side Cathy’s head. When Cathy thinks, “I’m to­tally fuck­ing screwed, I might as well en­joy my­self – right?” or “This whole con­ver­sa­tion is stress­ing me out ...”, it seems as if she’s recit­ing and con­tex­tu­al­is­ing the story for the ben­e­fit of the reader, rather than liv­ing it.

As the en­ergy of the story and the pres­sure on Cathy in­creases, she loses her pet mouse, Mouse (sig­nif­i­cance to fol­low) and Prague is hit by its worst floods in 150 years. There are more par­ties and more clubs as Cathy’s life be­comes that va­ri­ety of dream where, no mat­ter how hard you try, that thing you’re try­ing to achieve re­mains per­sis­tently and mad­den­ingly out of reach. De­spite her aware­ness of her PTSD, she’s in­cu­ri­ous as to the sin­gu­lar event be­hind it and some­how as­ton­ished by her even­tual di­ag­no­sis. There’s no chance of Et­tler’s al­lu­sions be­ing missed; not the lit­er­ary (“They’re these comic books about the con­cen­tra­tion camps. Maus as in M-A-U-S”) and not the po­lit­i­cal. Yet de­spite all this high­fa­lutin win­dow dress­ing, Bo­hemia Beach is at heart a straight­for­ward ro­mance novel. Cathy’s psy­chi­a­trist/psy­chother­a­pist, Edgar, re­minds her “of a ro­man­tic hero in a nine­teenth-cen­tury novel; all he needs is a vast es­tate, a dark fam­ily se­cret and he’d be per­fect”. Will Cathy end up with good guy Edgar, who falls in love with her faster than you can say “med­i­cal ethics”? Or with sexy bad boy To­mas, who has both a vast es­tate and a dark fam­ily se­cret?

Cathy’s fa­ther, a Czech lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor, pops up to re­mind us that “The Un­bear­able Light­ness of Be­ing is es­sen­tially about a love tri­an­gle. A beau­ti­ful, funny but ul­ti­mately tragic love tri­an­gle in­volv­ing the hope­lessly amoral To­mas, the long-suf­fer­ing Tereza and the femme fatale, Sabina ...” And ear­lier, To­mas tells Cathy what he thinks of her Kun­dera name­sake. “I didn’t re­ally like any of the char­ac­ters,” he tells her. “I was es­pe­cially an­noyed by the Tereza char­ac­ter, I found her weak and kind of pa­thetic. No of­fence …”

None taken. LS

Tran­sit Lounge, 304pp, $29.99

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.