Posts Tagged ‘text publishing’

I’ve just read two of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish novels in one week (the result of some hasty decisions in my first go at borrowing e-books from my local library) so forgive the smell of whisky and all of the horse talk.

I jumped on the Jack Irish wagon a couple of months ago, taking Bad Debts on holiday with me, and it turned out to be perfectly suited to holiday reading. Not because the book’s light and fluffy, but because being on holiday meant I had long stretches of potential reading time that would be uninterrupted by trivial things such as a full-time job and eating. Once I had my hands on two more of these bad boys, trying to fit these novels in around a daily 7.5-hour commitment seemed like the closest thing to torture that the bookish middle classes might ever know. I began to regard going to work as an day-long impediment to my progress. They are read-while-you-brush-your-teeth kind of books (I’ve only just cleaned the toothpaste off my iPad). I almost got hit by a tram while reading them – it’s that kind of thing.

I liked these books much more than I liked Truth and The Broken Shore, and I liked those books a lot. This like has a lot to do with the bar-setting Jack Irish, probably the best thriller protagonist I have ever come across. Jack (or so I like to call him) is the son of a Fitzroy footballer; an ex-criminal lawyer with a honed palate, an interest in the horses and a logic-defying attachment to his Studebaker Lark. These days, Jack is a suburban solicitor, having lost the taste for criminal law after an ex-client shot and killed his wife. Yet a strong sense of story and justice remain entwined in him, such that he finds it difficult not to follow slightly unravelled threads.

Bad Debts opens with Jack traipsing around after a non-compliant debtor. It’s only his sometimes-job cleaning up various non-legal bits and pieces, so it’s irritating to say the least when the subject pulls a gun on him – or to be more specific, at his wedding tackle. Complain as you will about laconic Australian men in fiction, but Jack’s thoughts on this turn of events are wonderful and typical: ‘I looked at the pistol with concern. It had a distinctly Albanian cast to it. These things go off for motives of their own.’ How much more satisfying can you get than that, I ask you. He’s the proverbial cucumber under pressure, making little jokes and understating the situation by a factor of about seventy. Yet underneath this he’s arranging his way out of the mess, and the resolution surprises you as much as the hapless joe who ends up locked up in his own house (the logistics of this are beyond me, but I am confident that he would be able to pull it off).

To surmount the distinct disadvantage to likeability that being a lawyer usually proves, Jack Irish needs to be a superlatively sympathetic customer, and it’s almost ridiculous how good a character he is. Jack knows a lot of obscure shit. At one stage, he describes a woman’s face thus: ‘her mouth a perfect Ctesiphon curve of disgust.’ Believe me, I googled this and I still have no idea what he meant; yet I have no doubt he meant something very germane and specific. Okay, I’m basically in love with a fictional character. What of it? Temple is a genius at character; even the people who pop up for one or two pages are vividly drawn. These portraits comprise scalp-pricklingly good physical sketches (‘Harry’s wife was in her forties, sexy in a bush-hospital nurse way’) and a way with dialogue that seems to come from a lifelong interest in how people speak.

Key to the greatness of these books is Temple’s ability to convey a lot of information very efficiently, without exposition assuming the all-too-familiar form of drudgery. I would be hard pressed to find a sentence in any of these books that does not simultaneously deliver character and plot. This is a blessing, because all of Temple’s books that I have read are concerned with the tricky dealings of systemic corruption and rotted states. His almost-fixation on the malign impenetrability of corporate webs made up of shell companies with names like Hexiod Holdings and MassiBild warrants the exponential build-up of personages and circumstances that characterises these books, and he handles them well: it’s dizzying but graspable. That these three books deal with issues – bribery, sexual misdemeanour, police corruption – that still glare at us from broadsheets today makes them as resonant now as they would have been when they were published ten to fifteen years ago.

Those who have read these or seen the ABC’s adaptations of the first two books would know how much Melbourne features in them. Jack’s wide networks take him all over the joint, and his intimate connections with places and people give me pure and great joy as a local. I am astounded how often the ‘X city is a character in the novel’ point is still trotted out in book reviews, but it’s hard not to think along those lines here, as we’re not exactly talking postcard snapshots of Flinders Street Station. There’s this, as an example: ‘The Law Department at Melbourne University looks the way universities should. It has courtyards and cloisters and ivy. I loitered downstairs, near where a girl had set fire to herself during the Vietnam War. Nobody paid any attention to me.’ History, power, how it brings to bear on the individual (or doesn’t): that’s how Jack Irish thinks.

Bad Debts is the strongest of the bunch for me, because it gave me the first-time surprise and delight of discovering the complexity and drama in this man’s life. The book’s horseracing side-story (it seems crass to call it a subplot because it’s so integral to one’s understanding of Jack’s character) involving ex-jockey Harry Strang and his right-hand man Cam astounded and absorbed me, even though I have zero interest in the subject. (The racing strand continues, and is welcome, in the other two books, but it’s freshest in the first.) The pacing is perfect. The scale of the drama grows at a breathtaking rate. Jack makes tables and dazzles us with his cabinet-maker’s vocabulary. He drains bottle after bottle of wine that sounds vintage to this millennial reader’s ear. Just glorious.

In Black Tide, again Jack starts out at the small time, trying to collect favours from a small-time crim, but soon enough he finds he’s just at the start of a pretty big factual climb. This, the second of the books, is also pacy and enthralling but I missed Linda Hillier, Jack’s sparring/de facto investigative partner from Bad Debts. And in White Dog, where the scion of an old Melbourne family requests Jack defend her against a seemingly watertight murder charge, the power of the formula is once more slightly diluted – though it could be because I read the two books back to back and have for the moment surfeited upon a proliferation of names and political conspiracies. Still, they’re all damned good reads, and I’ll be saving the third one for my next holiday.

In ‘Up North’, the fourth story in The Dead Fish Museum, a man whose wife is having a string of affairs says, ‘Our marriage was like a constant halving of the distance, without ever arriving at the moment in time where, utterly familiar, I’d vanish’. In the collection’s final story, ‘The Bone Game’, a man comes across a crystal clear stream, but the fish, which the native Americans believe are their ancestors, are ‘thin and weak and mutilated, their flesh ripped and trailing from their bodies like rags’. Charles D’Ambrosio’s second short story collection is full of these inexorable equations: lives diminishing without fully disappearing.

One way of coming to terms with the diminishing returns is to accept that life is a pretty low-stakes deal. Tony, the narrator of ‘Blessing’, describes heavy misfortunes as ‘gyps’. He’s an insurance broker, so he knows all about hedging bets: ‘You expect a normal life, but wager against it.’ Boons aren’t of much consequence either; Tony’s wife, Meagan, an actress for whom parts are proving elusive, says, ‘I love you … At least there’s that’. In ‘The Scheme of Things’, Lance and Kirsten live off small amounts of money – ten bucks a pop – that they procure by posing as charity workers.

Of The Dead Fish Museum’s eight offerings, three are fishing stories and one is a hunting story. In ‘Up North’, a couple make their way from New York to a cabin in the snow for deer season. In ‘The High Divide’, two boys go on a fishing trip. The triangulation of life, death and nature is a classic configuration: a proven catalyst for unearthing family violence (‘Up North’), or a nation’s bloody history (‘The Bone Game’). But D’Ambrosio’s sensitivity to natural beauty makes the gambit worthwhile. Not only is the land tainted (in the title story, the ocean shore is awash with garbage), it is also promising and fecund, housing tulips in ‘a sea of red and yellow … rolling our way like a wave’.

Animals meet their ends quite readily in these stories, but for their human counterparts, life is a waiting room at best. Young Ignatius in ‘The High Divide’ watches his father sitting on the caged-in patio of St. Jude’s Hospital, his eyes like ‘blown fuses’. This sense of attenuated experience is intensified by the recurrence of details across the stories. In a García Márquez–like repetition of circumstances, the collection contains multiple failed actresses, guns, insurance workers and psychiatric hospital inpatients. This déja vu blurs the lines between tales, creating a spectrum of story in which the waiting never ceases – characters are reincarnated, waiting, in another purgatory.

D’Ambrosio’s prose is good, his dialogue great. ‘My life is so simple a one-year-old could live it,’ says the self-immolating ballerina in ‘Screenwriter’. Folksy vocabulary and unusual word choices enable him to nail character and description in a scant sentence. His dialogue and prose work together at their best in ‘Drummond & Son’, a study of the relationship between a typewriter vendor and his son. Drummond is patient, dignified, undemonstrative: ‘Sometimes your illness tells you things, Pete. You know that’. Yet twenty-five year old Pete is referred to as ‘the boy’ in the story’s prose, a protective tell construing his son’s interrupted life.

‘Half-life’ is a scientific term – a measure of the time it takes for a substance to halve in size or potency. It’s synonymous with decay, with deterioration, and thus with the consciousness that there’s only less to come. While the realism of The Dead Fish Museum is constructed with an eye to the compromised quality of its characters’ existence, it’s also anchored in the ‘strange becalmed moments’ of the outgoing tide. D’Ambrosio’s stories are portraits of humanity at the tail end of exponential decay, reminding us of the distinction between even a compromised life and silence.

(Cross-posted from Killings – with my apologies for all the cross-posting while I’m occupied with blogging for MWF.)

In Aida Edemariam’s Guardian profile of Christos Tsiolkas that ran over the weekend, she enumerated the numerous garlands laid at Booker-longlisted The Slap‘s door. Among them is Colm Toíbín’s favourable descriptor: ‘reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Don DeLillo’s Underworld‘. As Edemariam notes, this is rather naughty, ‘as it is produced [in the UK] by an imprint he co-runs and [he] has been friends with Tsiolkas for years’.

As much as I’d like to be someone who regularly smashes a few cans with Cormac McCarthy while trading fusillades in a competitive round of ‘Imagine the Worst Apocalyptic Future Possible’, or the possessor of a personal epistolary trove that will be raided after my death for examples of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s handwriting, the truth is that I haven’t really had to deal with having that many people who have written books.

The recent publication of young Melbourne (via Byron Bay and Adelaide) writer Daniel Ducrou’s novel The Byron Journals has propped a stick in those works, however, because I’ve read the book, and I know him.

What to do? Even having disclosed this, I know that when I read something complimentary about an author’s work that has been said/written by someone who knows them, there’s always a small part of my brain that goes, ‘Yeah right, you goddamned BFFs’. Needless to say, I’m therefore on the alert not to produce anything like Nicole Krauss’s over-the-top blurb of David Grossman’s To the End of the Land (not that, to my knowledge, those two writers know each other). Here’s a quote from Krauss’s blurb, ganked from Alison Flood’s Guardian piece about it:

“Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before. To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude,” [Krauss] writes. … “And she doesn’t stop there. To read the book, she says, “is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being”.

I hope to steer clear of anything approaching that level of praise – about anything, actually, not just Dan’s book. But knowing you are unlikely to be moved by anything positive I say (‘goddamned BFFs’), I’m just going to have to forge ahead regardless, because I’ve laid it like I’ll play it.

***

‘I think I was born into the wrong city,’ says Andrew, as he buckles up. ‘Definitely the wrong family.’ He’s on a plane with his mate Benny, and they’re escaping Adelaide for Byron Bay. As comments go, it’s casual, but the sentiment is warranted. Andrew’s got plenty of cash from his dad, whom he caught having sex with one of his young students. As well as being cashed up, he’s recently been beaten up – a legacy from someone who wanted to convey a message about his mother’s work as a criminal defence lawyer.

Anxious but attracted to the sound of music at a house party, he joins in on a drummers’ jam, translating what he knows of classical music to the spontaneity of the gathering. His gaze falls easily on Heidi, a girl with a lazy but confident manner, and a drummer named Tim compliments him on his drum solo. But back at his digs, Richie, who lives next door to Benny in Adelaide, Richie prods Andrew about his mother: ‘it seems to take a special breed of person to do that kind of work.’ Andrew returns fire, and the two are soon brawling; and Andrew is soon without a place to stay.

Andrew takes his necessaries – phone, wallet, pot – and scouts out the house from the party the previous night. Tim lives there; as does Jade, pouting and scantily clad; and Heidi. With his new housemates, Andrew falls into street drumming for money. And with Heidi, he quickly falls into lust, consummated early in the warm Byron water. But Heidi is unpredictable: she explodes when he tells her he’s from Adelaide, too, not Melbourne, which he’d lied about to avoid a topic that clearly caused her pain. And music isn’t the only way of life here; once Tim finds out that Andrew’s mother is a lawyer, he cuts Andrew into the household’s marijuana operation in exchange for her legal assistance.

Byron Bay is a byword for escapism, sunshine and renewal. In The Byron Journals, people take phone calls by frangipani trees; they watch surfers from low dunes made of powdery sand. On his first plunge into the ocean, Andrew feels ‘baptised by the silence and the purity of the water [,] cleansed of his past and his future’. The drugs he takes for the first time in Byron give him new dimensions of feeling, and the excitement of sex binds him to Heidi. But the place is Janus-faced: it also breeds dissolution and stagnation. The Byron Journals isn’t winkingly ironic about this duality, but genuine in its affection and unflinching in depicting the limbo-like existence led by many of Byron’s inhabitants.

Good intentions and mistakes go hand in hand, and Andrew, who wants to be nothing like his parents, gets to grips with both. Andrew is gently ablaze with difficult feeling and eager youth. What we see as an unconsidered rush headlong into a relationship with the troubled Heidi and the drug-drenched activities of his new friends, he sees as preferable to the hell of home. So much, in fact, that he’s willing to go along with a dangerous plan – a plot turn that I didn’t really buy. However, the avalanche of complications teaches Andrew that the hell other people have made for you is often nowhere near as bad as the hell you can make for yourself.

The Byron Journals has been a few years in the making, having been shortlisted for the 2007 Australian/Vogel Literary Prize and the 2008 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript, and it shows. The prose is relaxed and effective: beautiful yet matter-of-fact. The dialogue in particular is lifelike: character-apt and unfussy.

The Byron Journals is a love letter to Byron: the surf, the love, the freedom. It’s also a witness to the irrevocable passage of carefree youth, which bestows, sometimes violently, gifts that resist understanding. At the end of the book, Ducrou gives us a fitting coda: an urgent, impressionistic swell of music that seems to come both from within Andrew and from without, accompanied by fragments of his time in Byron – the crazy ones and the perfect ones side by side. All these things being, for the moment, irreconcilable, but nevertheless lingering in the air.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are three of my favourite books in the world. The books, if you haven’t read them, follow the adventures of a young girl called Lyra, who lives in a parallel world to ours, where humans’ souls exist outside their bodies and take animal forms. The sheer imagination that suffuses the novels is wondrous, and is underpinned by Pullman’s powers of characterisation; Lyra and her companion, Will, who’s from our world, are no mere products of ink on paper, but are as present as living, breathing flesh; as are their animal souls.

One of the most striking preoccupations of the books, and a common target for commentary since their publication, is the strength and corruption of its fictional church, called the Magisterium. In Northern Lights, the first of the books, the Magisterium has built a laboratory to perform dreadful experiments on children in the name of trying to eradicate Dust, which they believe is a physical manifestation of sin. The books are peppered with zealots of all kinds, from the lethal Mrs Coulter, a power-hungry associate of the Magisterium, to fanatics willing to flagellate themselves in advance punishment for crimes. Pullman’s fictional assailment upon wealthy, corporate churches was echoed in his personal statements, with his famous quote ‘My books are about killing God’ earning him plenty of ire from Christians all around the world.

His new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which I reviewed recently for The Big Issue, tackles similar ground in a more radical fashion. In fact, it might be seen as the thematic prequel to the His Dark Materials books: it sets up the structures and mythology that Pullman had Lyra tear down. Pullman reimagines the original Christian birth as a double: Mary is the mother of twins, Jesus and Christ. Christ is the early forerunner in the story, a child who performs miracles and often assists his more compulsive brother, Jesus, out of trouble. As the brothers age, the differences intensify – Jesus becomes a charismatic religious teacher devoted to God, who repels with disgust Christ’s attempts to persuade him to capitalise on his influence and assemble a structured church, ‘all answering to the authority of one supreme director’.

Christ is asked by a mysterious stranger to make a record of Jesus’ doings, and he does so – at first as accurately as he can, but then with some revisions and editing. So we learn that the stories we now know from the Bible were entirely different in the doing; we see the tension of myth and history. For instance, the paralysed man whom Jesus exhorts to take up his mat and walk was not cured, but ’so strengthened and inspired by the atmosphere Jesus had created that he found himself able to move’. And, at a wedding in Cana where the wine has run out, Jesus has a few words with a steward and more wine appears, but it’s not certain exactly how; it’s possible that Jesus has simply asked for more to be brought out.

There is a lot to admire in the book, but there are also disappointments. I have not read anything so beautiful this year as The Good Man Jesus’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is served well by Pullman’s easy yet arresting prose. His way with characterisation and dialogue (assisted, of course, by the source material) provides us with a Jesus who is resolute and lion-like in ferocity. But there’s close to no subtlety in Jesus’s diatribe in Gethsemane. In Mark’s gospel, this is a moment of enduring and bottomless faith. But in The Good Man Jesus, Jesus has lost his faith completely, and is using his last moments not for reconciliation but catharsis: ‘Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in our name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love.’ It’s rather too ‘The Church’s Worst Crimes throughout the Ages’, and not strongly foreshadowed in the book; as Rowan Williams said in his Guardian review, ‘nothing in the narrative has prepared us for this; the Jesus of earlier chapters has a robust conviction of the unconditional love of God’.

The Christian story is one that clearly has a powerful hold on Pullman. In fact, such is its power over him that my thoughts upon reading The Good Man Jesus were of a similar tenor to James Bradley’s conclusion in May 5th’s Australian Literary Review (though nowhere near as finely worded) that The Good Man Jesus ‘is a book so bound up in its argument with religion that it is … essentially a religious text, unable to transcend the terms of its creation’. The dilemma faced by Christ – how to represent Jesus’s story and ensure its longevity – is one that accepts the power and grace of that originary story. But while Pullman may have an argument with religion, he certainly doesn’t have anything against the power of story, the sole element of religion that emerges from the book unscathed.

Read the transcript of a conversation between Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (whose intelligence and engagement with non-Christian viewpoints make me furious about being in the poisonous vicinity of George Pell), here.

I know this is cheating, but here’s my review of Andrew Porter’s short story collection, The Theory of Light and Matter, at Killings. Sorry to be so stingy on value, but I’m reeling this week from having been told I look like Poh.

Romance is a narrative space that has birthed some enduring clichés: I’d Take a Bullet for You; I Knew I Loved You before I Met You; What Took You So Long? These phrases are attractive because they create a paradigm in which there is only one choice, in which the tragic and the correct are one and the same thing. So it is with the exhortation to ‘Let the Right One in’: this imperative expresses the commentator’s capitulation to life’s generous and resolute pairing strategy. There’s one person out there for you, and when you find them, you let yourself love them, and you let them be with you. But any of us familiar with love’s angled horns knows that love is not the cakewalk that the easy gait of these phrases makes it out to be. What happens, for example, when a person grows to love a predator; when a human falls in love with a vampire?

Oskar is a young boy who imagines the earth of Blackeberg, his hometown, drinking the blood of his bullies; a lonely and damaged child whom older children in his school and apartment block take advantage of: selling him stolen toys at exorbitant prices and calling him ‘Little Pig’. Nosebleeds and wet pants are daily problems, and he’s chubby from the confectionery he regularly swipes from stores. His troubles show no signs of abating, and filter through even to how he spends his time waiting for his mother to come home from work – a scrapbook he keeps under a stack of comics contains clippings about grisly crimes from newspapers and the Home Journal. So it’s no wonder that Oskar is intrigued when a young boy is killed in nearby Vällingby.

His loneliness, however, is about to come to an end. In the courtyard of his building one evening, Oskar is imagining himself the attacker and his bully, Jonny, the victim, when a young girl he’s never seen before joins him outside. Eli is quiet but strange, wearing only a thin pink top against the freezing cold. She moves like a cat. There’s something broken about her, too: her first words to Oskar are not ‘Hello’ or ‘Hi’, but ‘I can’t be friends with you. Just so you know.’ She smells bad, though she looks like a doll, with her pale, white face and dark hair. Two children used to being alone, their interaction prefaced by antisocial stabs: it’s a heartbreaking premise for a novel’s axial relationship. But it’s delicately handled by John Ajvide Lindqvist, as is every passage in which the children’s rapport is the focus. In particular, the way they finally breach their own defensive barriers to become friends – in the committed, obsessive way that children can foster – is beautiful and quick, an insect’s hop between leaves. Since both are accustomed to being almost alone in the world, their love for one another necessitates a rare brand of support and trust. And that’s even before Oskar discovers why Eli is so strange, for she is, of course, a vampire.

The vampire story can be remade and remodelled endlessly, as a series I’m desperately trying to avoid mentioning by name here has recently shown. Lindqvist’s interpolation of the ancient monster into the contemporary context, along with the ethics, the rules and the history of that special flavour of beast, is a successful and cinematic one – it’s no surprise that Let the Right One In lent itself so wonderfully to a film adaptation. Few Western readers would need to be reminded why the vampire – human-like, eternal, predatory – is so compelling a creature, and therefore so prone to recurring in fiction. Lindqvist’s modern interpretation limps a little with the introduction of a medico-biotic explication of the vampire’s hunger, but is wonderful when focused on the delicate, fierce exchanges between Oskar and Eli.

However, this book is not for the reader who is similarly delicate. Crime fiction, even vampire crime fiction, has traditionally accommodated an author’s interrogation of the socio-cultural landscape. In Let the Right One In, the murders that soon creep from Vällingby to Blackeberg are not the only criminal items of note – Eli’s companion, Håkan, is a paedophile who finds opportunities to indulge his vice at the local library, and searches out people for Eli to feed on. Håkan and Eli’s victims are not anonymous or horror-film-glamorous fodder. Vulnerable people are the easiest victims, and so a child, a cancer sufferer, a monobrowed member of a drinking group and a grandmother all succumb to Eli’s unnatural needs. Key to this aspect of the book is Eli’s body, which Lindqvist explicitly renders as a beautiful blank that allows respective characters to perceive her in a range of dangerous and contradictory ways, whether as an object for experimentation, games or desire.

Though as a vampire Eli needs permission to enter a person’s home, she needs no such consent to enter a person’s heart; she has long honed the skills of cultivating human attachment that enable her survival. But it is not only Oskar’s decision to let her – the ostensibly dangerous one – into his life that creates the emotional cynosure of Let the Right One In. At the centre of this book is the combination of sweetness and despair that follows Eli’s decision to abjure her path of centuries to take the risk of letting mortal love into her life, and what that means for her endless existence. It is a decision fraught with the weighty ethics of love, expressed with touching clarity in this book.

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?’
‘Watching telly.’
‘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.