Friday 7 December 2012

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John

The Essence of the Thing, by Madeleine St John managed a nomination for the Booker Prize in 1997. (It competed with the truly superb Europa by Tim Parks, and both of these lost out to The God of Small Things by Andurati Roy - I have a copy of this that I have never managed to read.)
    Essence is the third of St John's novels, and since I have been reading them in order, there is sadly only one to go. There is something to be said for the smaller novel, in this case a mere 235 pages - you can finish it in a day or two and there isn't time for the story to get too flabby. St John's novel has no spare words. It remains sharp and witty and leaves a lot to the reader's imagination. I for one appreciate the faith the author has in the reader to fill in the gaps.
    The story concerns a couple, Jonathan and Nicola, and what happens when Jonathan tells Nicola he doesn't want to live with her anymore and that he will buy her out of their Notting Hill flat, originally her flat, and can she leave as soon as possible please. Of course, Jonathan is a prat, but he happens to be, as Nicola points out to her best friend, Susannah, the prat that she loves.
    Nicola is desolate and the book is mainly about how she departs the flat, talks to friends, and because she isn't a prat they are happy to help out, and how eventually she pulls her life together again. There are scenes with each of the unhappy couple's parents who have hopes for their children. His parents think it is time they settled down. Nicola is perhaps not quite what one might have hoped, but nice enough. Nicola's parents likewise hope for a wedding. 'Why doesn't he have done and marry her?' declares her father.
    There are clever comparisons between different sectors of the middle classes. Jonathan's friends, Alfred and Lizzie are well-off professionals and too busy to have another child. Nicola's friends, Susannah and Geoff, are liberal, academic types and 'too poor' to produce a sibling for nine-year-old Guy. Geoff's friend, Sam, borrows his power tools, and does some amusing mental comparisons of the 'keeping up with the Jonses' kind.
    All this is achieved in short chapters, often containing a single scene using dialog and little else, which makes it a bit like reading a play at times. The dialog is pitch perfect - natural but able to move the story along nicely. And often laugh-out-loud funny. The ending is thoughtfully open-ended.
    St John's novels achieve a lot in a small sphere - ordinary people just thinking and talking, which can be a breath of fresh air if you've just been reading an epic fantasy novel as I have. In this sense, she is a kind of modern Jane Austen and reminds me a lot of Barbara Pym, and I am at a loss to decide which I like best.

No comments:

Post a Comment