Engrossing, frenetic, hilarious
Emma Jane Unsworth’s devastatingly perceptive new novel overflows with unvarnished truths and simple beauty
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.”