Women in Black and The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John

Given that St John is one of those Australians who leave and declines ever to come back, I was in an uneasy state whilst reading Women in Black. Is the satire affectionate or spiteful? One might assume the latter. And yet, thinking enough of it to try another, The Essence of the Thing set in the London in which she spent most of her adulthood, it is evident that she does have the necessary sympathy for her subjects to keep the reader onside.

Women in Black was her first novel and it was promising; promising enough to expect more of later work. The Essence of the Thing is generally considered her best – shortlisted for the Booker evidently is a legacy a book keeps for ever.

I thought it was a terrific brief observation on the little that most people manage to make from life. All the happy people were dull, but so is the protagonist and her partner. Not surprisingly, unhappiness makes their stock rise in the interest dept just a little, but the author doesn’t overdo it. There are no Heathcliffs and Catherines here.  As one review on GR put it:

It’s not a great story, it doesn’t have great characters, you won’t be swept up in the emotions of the read, but you’d struggle to find a more familiar retelling of a falling out, a telling closer to your own story. GR 

I don’t really understand how one could read it and not be moved.

Reading hint: don’t be put off by people comparing it with Austen, it’s nothing like it.

These two books show a writer who does her own thing and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. I don’t understand why my GR friends, even the Australian ones, have apparently not given St John a whirl. Women in Black is quite a nice portrayal of how Australia was, and just for that is worth picking up.

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