En­gross­ing, fre­netic, hi­lar­i­ous

Emma Jane Unsworth’s dev­as­tat­ingly per­cep­tive new novel over­flows with un­var­nished truths and sim­ple beauty

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - Cather­ine Conroy


By Emma Jane Unsworth

JBor­ough Press, 400pp, £12.99

enny Mc Laine, the nar­ra­tor of Adults, is 35 and can hardly bear to live in the real world. Life is not abid­ing to The Grand Scheme. When we meet her, she is ag­o­nis­ing over how to cap­tion a pic­ture of a crois­sant on In­sta­gram. It’s about all she can cope with right now, an on­line per­for­mance of a life. She ig­nores texts from her mother and best friend, Kelly, only to keep one ob­ses­sive eye on a whim­si­cal #live­laughlove in­flu­encer joy­fully kick­ing up au­tumn leaves, “the rest of the world has fallen away around this small square of ex­is­tence.”

Jenny has ig­nored Dorothy Parker’s wise ad­vice, “Don’t put all your eggs in one bas­tard”. Her “hot thug” pho­tog­ra­pher boyfriend of seven years, Art, has left and she’s had to move lodgers in to pay the mort­gage. Fans of Emma Jane Unsworth’s pre­vi­ous novel An­i­mals could imag­ine Adults as ex­ist­ing in a sim­i­lar uni­verse, with wild days in your 20s gear­ing up to a per­fect end­ing be­fore dis­in­te­grat­ing again. Her 30s are a world of “con­stant self-in­ter­ro­ga­tion. Ac­quir­ing the courage to change what you can, and the ther­a­pist to ac­cept what you can’t.”

Jenny’s char­ac­ter fits within the long lit­er­ary tra­di­tion of The Messy Woman which is in fact the se­cret his­tory of, whis­per it, most women. There are about five women in the world who never cried at work, who ac­quired chil­dren and hus­bands on sched­ule, who wear a clean bra ev­ery day and no one ever writes nov­els about them – well, no woman ever writes nov­els about them.

And the hunger for this sort of char­ac­ter is not wan­ing – per­haps it is the end­less pa­rade of per­fec­tion on so­cial me­dia that makes us crave women not liv­ing within the strict pa­ram­e­ters of the adult world – ca­reer, ba­bies, man, gym, #ad, #spon. Read­ing this book, I thought about Fleabag; the neu­roses, the joy, the messi­ness – all the things women don’t say.

We go back to the be­gin­nings of Jenny’s re­la­tion­ship with Art, all one-lin­ers, cig­a­rette smoke and golden val­ium after­noons. The courtship plays out in a series of over-an­a­lysed emails in which she ag­o­nises over whether to cap­i­talise her kisses, oc­ca­sion­ally rop­ing in her re­luc­tant best friend to scru­ti­nise with her. (Kelly tells her she is in “ro­ma­nia”, Ro­man­tic Ma­nia).

The years go by, Jenny wants a baby. (“I want to be re­duced by my bi­ol­ogy some­times, I want the pres­sure of my higher un­der­stand­ing switched off”), but when this takes too much time, Art re­treats and Jenny dis­ap­pears fur­ther into her­self.

The book is a break-up book, yes, but it opens up into a story of motherhood. Jenny’s mother is a sort of jan­gly jew­ellery-wear­ing show­biz psy­chic who didn’t love Jenny the way she was sup­posed to, but ab­so­lutely does love her. Nev­er­the­less, she is the place where all Jenny’s pain be­gins. With Jenny at cri­sis point, her mother ar­rives on the scene, all wis­dom and gin and tonic, de­ter­mined to bring her daugh­ter back in to the world.

This is also the story of Jenny’s own re­la­tion­ship to the idea of be­ing a mother her­self. The writ­ing about ma­ter­nal long­ing is dev­as­tat­ingly per­cep­tive – Jenny is sur­rounded by doubt:

“You are not ma­ter­nal, said the blood. You are not ma­ter­nal, said the to­bacco. You are not ma­ter­nal, said the over­time. You are not ma­ter­nal, said the over­draft.”

Yet there is some quiet in­sis­tence. “Some­times I think I want to walk down a school cor­ri­dor in au­tumn time and see sugar pa­per drawings tacked to the walls and recog­nise them.” But then that other draw, “Other times, I just want to be alone with my imag­i­na­tion.” Unsworth never shies away from all the blood and bondage of fe­male bi­ol­ogy, the an­i­mal of us.

The chaotic struc­ture of the novel moves from text ex­changes to drafted never-sent emails to a script re­flect­ing the “pro­ces­sion of Ban­quo’s ghosts” in Jenny’s mind. But there are many lines too of sim­ple beauty that sit still among all that fre­netic en­ergy – a mo­ment when her heart snaps “clean in two, like a bis­cuit; a brit­tle lit­tle do­mes­tic thing.” And no one can put a laugh out loud smut right up be­side po­etry the way Unsworth can.

In part, Adults is about the at­ten­tion we pay and fail to pay to one an­other – the op­por­tu­ni­ties mod­ern life gives you to opt out. At one point, Jenny even checks her phone dur­ing sex. She re­calls a time when the first thing you looked at in the morn­ing and last thing at night was a lover’s face, not a lit screen.

There’s a pro­lif­er­a­tion of books with this sort of ti­tle lately, Adults, Grown Ups, All Adults Here. Clearly some­thing in the state of the world is mak­ing a lot of us feel very small.

If Unsworth’s novel An­i­mals was named af­ter Frank O’Hara’s poem of the same name, “Have you for­got­ten what we were like then/when we were still first rate/and the day came fat with an ap­ple in its mouth” then Adults is an­other beast en­tirely. The women are older, the world does not seem as much for the tak­ing, but there’s a dif­fer­ent sort of peace that passes the Bechdel test. It is an­other O’Hara poem, “Ev­ery­thing is im­pos­si­ble in a dif­fer­ent way/well so what, but there’s a dif­fer­ence/be­tween a win­dow and a wall again.”


Emma Jane Unsworth: “no one can put a laugh out loud smut right up be­side po­etry the way Unsworth can.”

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