I requested Madeleine St John’s The Essence of the Thing for review on Textual Fantasies because I was fascinated by what critics say about St John. I’d never heard of her, but when Text re-issued her novels, it became possible to read a slew of printed praise for her writing, including, from Michelle de Kretser: ‘It is to be hoped that St John, who is woefully undervalued [in Australia], will at last be recognised as the best novelist we never had’. Big call. So, of course, it was necessary to read Madeleine St John immediately.
And, of course, I’m glad I did. It’s a break-up story, albeit one which is tart and charming. Nicola — lovely, clever, loyal — comes home from a cigarette run to the home she shares with Jonathan to this:
Jonathan shrugged very slightly and then got impatiently to his feet. He leaned an arm against the mantelpiece; if there had been a fire he would certainly have poked it. As it was, he looked unseeingly at the objects at his elbow and moved a china poodle dog. Then he looked up at her again. ‘There’s no nice way to say this,’ he said. ‘But I’ve decided – that is, I’ve come to the conclusion – that we should part.’
Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of similar words will appreciate the swirling confusion that follows such a scene. Nicola’s first reaction to this giant unilateral shift is disbelief: ‘this is just a sort of joke which I haven’t yet understood’; this quickly turns to shock and anger. Later, she manages to pull herself together into a kind of utterly practical and even hopeful embracer of change: it’s not a book with a lot of wallowing. And it’s as far from psychiatry-era emotional-damage-lit as you can get. Rather, The Essence of the Thing illustrates the wretchedness of a regular end to a regular relationship with endlessly empathetic focus on the kaleidoscope twist such an event usually represents.
St John is talented at sketching character with very few words. It’s not a dense book, and it has very short chapters, which tootles the whole thing along very quickly. In that way, it’s rather televisual. I particularly like her dialogue, which is pithy but veridical:
‘What’s your dad doing?’
‘Take him a caramel then.’
There are lots of characters in this book, mostly couples: the newly-split couple’s respective parents and different sets of Nicola and Jonathan’s shared friends. But they’re all lively in separate skins, all able to be told apart. St John very lovingly pokes fun at the many foibles a person encounters in life’s cast of friends and family, and occasionally enjoys a joke at the expense of her adopted national character (she moved to England in the 1960s): ‘I must, she thought, just concentrate on what comes next, and try to live through this as decently as I can. She was not British for nothing.’ I also loved the little kid, Guy, who is very good-natured and is constantly exclaiming in the time-honoured British way: ‘Cor!’ (as opposed to: ‘Oh my god, that is so random’). And Nicola herself is wonderful, with her smiles as easy as her tears, her passim French words and her desire just to get on with things after Jonathan leaves.
The Essence of the Thing is a tender exploration of the middle-class break-up: the turmoil and resilience that can still be suffered by the person whose basic physical and financial needs are all taken care of: the emotional niceties of awkward asset dissolution, the solitude and pendulum swings of someone undertaking to demolish a long-term relationship, what to do with the marmalade your ex-partner’s mother has gifted you with, what to do with the collection of china dogs. What is interesting about The Essence of the Thing is how ordinary all the characters and situations are. People are, of course, drawn to stories that can tell them things they might never find out if they relied purely on their own experience: other countries, other lives and other loves. But readers also love to feel the fizz of recognition between themselves and a story, and in that, this book excels.