Being Jade by Kate Belle – a study of grief and love

imageNote: this review contains mild spoilers.

“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
ISBN: 9781925030044

The Lost Girls by Wendy James: ‘Suburban Noir’

Lost Girls Wendy JamesIt’s 1978. A fourteen-year-old girl goes missing from a suburb on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. A few days later, her body is found in bushland in Palm Beach. She’s been strangled with her own scarf and there’s evidence of sexual activity.

Under suspicion are those last to see her alive, including the girl’s cousin Matt and his mates. Suspicion lingers, despite the police being unable to bring a case – until a second girl is found dead at Kings Cross some time later, killed in a near-identical fashion. The murders are attributed to an unknown “serial killer”, dubbed the “Sydney Strangler”, even though no other murdered girls are found.

The two dead girls, local “chick” Angie and country runaway Kelly, aren’t the only “lost girls” in Wendy James’ latest novel, The Lost Girls. There’s Jane, Angie’s younger cousin, and Kelly’s younger sister Kath and her mother. There’s also Angie’s mum Carol and her aunt Barbara. Each is “lost” in some way, coping – or not coping – with the impact of those violent deaths.

The Lost Girls explores this impact thirty years later, when a mysterious journalist, Erin Fury, appears. Ostensibly she’s doing research for a radio program, aiming to explore the impact of such deaths on the families of murdered women. Her first interview is with cousin Jane, now middle-aged and married to childhood sweetheart Rob, with a teenaged daughter. Jane, reassessing what she has done with her life, is eager to revisit the time when her beloved cousin was killed. It’s as if she might answer some pressing personal questions by reviewing that time through adult eyes.

Jane isn’t the only one Erin targets. She also interviews Jane’s brother, one-time suspect Matt; Jane and Matt’s policeman father Doug, now a nursing home resident suffering from dementia; their mother, Barbara; and Jane’s husband, Rob. Each has a take on past events and, as Erin inveigles herself into their lives, long-held, sometimes painful, secrets are revealed.

One aspect of The Lost Girls I particularly admire is its evocation of place and time. I grew up on the Northern Beaches around this time, and many of the specific details James gives – from the local milk bar with its pin-ball machine, to the type of lollies the characters buy – bring back vivid memories. Another aspect is James’ ear for dialogue. So many of the characters sound like people I know or have known. I also admire her skill as a storyteller, her ability to create suspense and her seemingly effortless transitions of time, point of view and tense.

Chiefly I’m interested in the way James uses a sensationalistic premise, that of serial killing, in order to explore facets of human nature. Unlike many contemporary crime and thriller writers, she doesn’t offer violence as entertainment; nor does she place it somewhere “out there”, beyond the experience of the reader. Rather, she shows how individuals respond to such traumatic events, and the effects of the choices they make as a consequence. Along the way, she suggests how such choices shape us as human beings; how we come to terms with suffering, loss, mistakes and betrayal; how we love or try to love, despite disappointment; and the meanings we make of our own and others’ lives.

Crime author Angela Savage has remarked that the reader of James’ novels doesn’t have to suspend disbelief. In general, I’d agree. However, initially while reading The Lost Girls, I found the journalist Erin’s character unconvincing, particularly in terms of motivation. She seemed more of a device than a psychologically realised character. Then I began to see her as one of the “lost girls” of the title and she made more sense to me. And it’s for that reason that I’d disagree with the criticism both Savage and Michelle McLaren make of the Epilogue, that it’s somehow a mis-step or unnecessary. For me it resolves the central motif of the story.

With The Lost Girls, James consolidates her place alongside Honey Brown and newcomer Dawn Barker among Australia’s foremost proponents of an emerging genre of psychological suspense, which some have dubbed “suburban noir”. I’m eager to find other Australian authors who might fit into this category. Do you know of any?

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher via Netgalley. The Lost Girls has attracted a lot of attention from AWW reviewers including: Shellyrae at Book’d Out, Carol at Reading Writing and Riesling, Bree at All the Books I Can Read, Jess at The Never Ending Bookshelf, and Bernadette at Fair Dinkum Crime.

Title: The Lost Girls
Author: Wendy James
Published:
26/02/2014
ISBN-13: 9781921901058; ISBN-10: 1921901055
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Publisher: Penguin Australia.

 

 

Thriller debut – I Am Pilgrim by Australian author Terry Hayes

I-am-pilgrim-hayesTerry Hayes’ debut novel, I Am Pilgrim, is a blockbuster spy thriller which shows all the author’s narrative skills as a seasoned screenwriter. Seemingly written with Hollywood in mind, it is highly visual, and has multiple twists and turns to keep even the most reluctant reader riveted to the page (or, in my case, the iPad) until long into the night.

A lengthy 704 pages, the story ranges over settings as diverse as New York, Saudi Arabia, the Hindu Kush and Turkey. It combines an identity-troubled protagonist, reminiscent of Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, with comic-book-like action typical of a James Bond movie. (There are probably better contemporary examples, but this isn’t really my genre.)

The narrative is ostensibly told in the first person and jumps forwards and backwards in time, as motivations and back stories are filled out. The premise, a terror threat which could bring down the United States, if not the entire Western World, is alarmist and frightening; and Hayes’ narrative manipulations make the scenario in all its permutations seem – almost – believable. With at times clunky foreshadowing, Hayes never lets the reader forget the magnitude of the imminent threat, and pointed references to genocide, such as the narrator’s quote from an Auschwitz survivor, attempt to give the story an epic quality:

There was one thing the experience had taught him. He said he’d learned that when millions of people, a whole political system, countless numbers of citizens who believed in God, said they were going to kill you – just listen to them.

As well as telling his own story, Hayes’ narrator retells events as if from the points of view of other pivotal characters, including the Muslim terrorist-antagonist. The built-in unreliability of the narrator, in my view, narrowly saves the story from being a crude exploitation of complex political, religious and ideological tensions between the West and radical Islam for entertainment purposes. Narrowly, I say, because the narrator’s unreliability is only hinted at, rather than fully drawn. It could be easy for some – many? most? – readers to accept on face value the narrator’s self-serving account of events, and to regard him as a hero, rather than the flawed, ethically and morally suspect anti-hero I would like to think Hayes intends him to be. (We might have to wait for another book featuring this narrator to judge what Hayes has in mind here.)

Who will enjoy this book? Anyone who likes morally ambiguous, page-turning thrillers. Who might hate it? People who don’t buy my unreliable narrator argument and who can’t bring themselves to switch off their critical facilities long enough to enjoy James Bond.

For me, I couldn’t put it down.

~

Author: Terry Hayes
Title: I Am Pilgrim
ISBN: 9780593064955
Published: Random House, 01/08/2013
Imprint: Bantam Press
Review copy kindly supplied by publisher.
This review counts towards my 2013 Aussie Author Challenge.
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