“People argue about death” is the opening line of Kate Belle’s novel Being Jade. It might just as well have been, “People argue about love”. For, although grief over a death sets the book’s narrative in motion, many of the questions it raises are about love or, more precisely, whether love and infidelity are compatible. Does fidelity in a relationship matter? Does it make a difference if the couple is married? The woman pregnant? If they have children? The length of time they’ve been together?
Being Jade begins with the first person point of view of Banjo, husband to Jade, father of Cassy and Lissy. Banjo has just been killed in a hit-and-run on a lonely stretch of road on the north coast of New South Wales. The novel explores the mystery of why he was walking there alone, who hit him and why the driver absconded. As Banjo comes to terms with his death, we see his grief over his loss of life, and particularly of his beloved wife Jade, a temperamental artist he fell in love with as a teenager, married at eighteen and lived with for nearly thirty years. Because of Banjo’s grief, the focus of the novel is on Jade, the object of his devotion, and the source of much of his suffering and of that of his children. We learn of Jade’s troubled childhood, her affairs, her serial abandonment of her children when they were small, her drinking and drug-taking; as well as her artwork which features her lovers in outrageously erotic – if not pornographic – detail.
The point of view of the novel alternates between Banjo and his younger daughter Lissy. Through Lissy, we watch as Jade falls into catatonic depression after the funeral. Is it, as Lissy wants to believe, a sign of the depth of her mother’s love and grief at the loss of her soulmate? Or is the truth, as her older sister Cassy suggests, that the depression stems from their mother’s guilt over her own destructive behaviour, a typical narcissistic self-dramatising of a woman who always needs to be the centre of attention?
Being Jade is provocative. Among the questions it poses are, why does society continue to hold double standards for men and women? Why is it shocking when women embrace their sexuality and demand sexual freedom, when they leave their children in the care of the children’s father, when they have multiple partners? And why are representations of a vagina still so confronting?
While the figure of Jade provides the focus of the novel, the emotional and, for me, psychological core is about grief. Not only does it portray the grief experienced over a loss of life, but also the grief one feels when having to come to terms with someone’s otherness, their insistence on being themselves, no matter what harm they might cause to those they love. For this reason, I was uncertain of the ending. Towards the climax, we see deeper into Jade’s affairs, a twist enabled by Banjo’s ghostly status as he sees her memories. Here Banjo appears to accept a new “truth” of her behaviour, that – far from being monstrous – it was loving, even redeeming.
This is one of the areas where I found the novel problematic. (The other was Jade’s portrayal in terms of her Asian-ness, but that’s for another discussion.) Banjo’s – and, through him, the reader’s – revised understanding of Jade has a huge emotional payoff with the girls’ discovery of a particular painting. But it appears to reinscribe Jade in the whore/Madonna trope which the rest of the novel seems at pains to question (with the “Madonna” aspect being figurative – restorative of fallen men – rather than maternal).
Are there sufficient hints of Banjo’s fallibility as a narrator to throw this longed-for redemption of Jade into doubt? Perhaps. Enough to suggest that this view of Jade might be a wish fulfilment for Banjo and Lissy (as well as the reader and perhaps author). In this alternative reading, Banjo and Lissy could be seen as doing what they have always done: choosing to see their all-too-human wife/mother how they want her to be, not who she really might be. And who might she be? A beautiful, talented, self-absorbed and selfish bitch. And what’s wrong with that? Women can be bitches, right? We’re human. What makes this a harder version to accept is that the only points of view we see are from characters whose values are at least influenced by small-town expectations of acceptable roles and behaviour of women.
In the end, I can’t decide which view of Jade does greater justice to the story, the character and women in general. For me, Jade remains a cipher, like the Korean symbol that provides the signature mark of her artwork; a compelling character, rendered in at times beautiful prose, central to a story that kept me reading long into the night and had me wanting to talk about it afterwards. The sign of a good, thought-provoking book.
This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Authors Challenge. Being Jade has previously been reviewed for the AWW challenge by Monique, Shelleyrae, Sam, Carol, Rowena, Deborah and Jenn. Review copy kindly supplied by the publisher.
Author: Kate Belle
Title: Being Jade
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Date: June 2014