A moving figure on a static canvas, Jackie Owens

Crimes of Neglect
Stephanie Johnson,
New Women’s Press, $21.95

Stephanie Johnson’s first novel charts the emotional wasteland of Beatrice: cellist, mother, veteran of relationships, and, in the eyes of her sisters and ex-husbands, disaster. Drifting from Teasedale to Christchurch to Sydney, Bea is perpetually short of money, certainty and a bath and dreamily reminiscent of children, lovers and family. This is in spite of the realities of their presence: her daughter Harriet works in a B&D parlour and her son Farrell is a fascist young policeman; Bea’s disapproving and controlling older sister Cushla has discovered reincarnation with the aid of the works of Shirley Maclaine; and silent sister Ghita has taken refuge in a cult-like convent bakery.

In Bea’s world everyone except her seems settled: sisters and children are stuck in ruts, trapped, focused, anchored; past lovers are safely prosperous or disappeared. Bea alone drifts among them; she sinks, is washed ashore, a moving figure on a static canvas.

Johnson’s first novel shows her background as a short-story writer and poet, since the qualities of the prose tend to overwhelm the story in parts. The plot skims along past incident and minor character, casual reflection and shreds of memory, with the same haphazard grimness that characterises Bea’s life. One is left at the end, after several late plot twists, with the feeling that very little has actually happened. We have been introduced to Bea’s life, but that is all. I was not sure whether this was a deliberate device, suggesting the aimlessness of Bea’s life, or whether this was a novel that had grown out of a short story, and whose structure had been weakened in the challenge to reach full growth.

Yet such is the effortless sharpness of sentence and the lightly poisonous touch of description and dialogue, that this almost compensates for the aimlessness of the plot. Johnson’s sentences are never over-written, never forced and often contain gems of sly humour at Bea’s unlikely associates. In a context of urban chaos of the most personal kind, Harriet’s job seems no stranger and worthy of amusement than the ballroom dancing veteran downstairs.

Then suddenly, in the middle of a wry joke, Bea is assaulted by some particularly dangerous memory from the past: death, abandonment, desertion, embarrassment. Thus, as all comedy carries within it the seed of tragedy, so all the grotesquely funny aspects of Bea’s experience, the cheerful squalor anchored only by the cello in the corner, can overturn in an instant into tragedy. The overall effect is of disequilibrium, of being thrown every which way, to every emotion, by the shipwrecked emotions that Bea lives with.

Then the problem of its structure rears its head again. Bea’s life may be chaos, but the constant skimming through details and incident do not so much reflect this as make the reader wonder what is going on. Short narrative passages from Harriet’s point of view only confuse the issue further; is the novel meant to be seen from her eyes as well? If so, why doesn’t she narrate anything until the end?

Finally, the conclusion, packed as it is with incident and speeding towards disaster, seems a bit unconvincing. Bea’s perspective on her life has been altered, but it is hard to see why. Nevertheless there is an undeniable sense of coming to terms with life, with tragedy, with the crimes of neglect that Bea knows she has committed.

I enjoyed Crimes of Neglect, reading it quickly and voraciously, appreciating its light, deft turn of phrase and sly sense of humour. There was a textural richness to its deceptively short paragraphs, like oil paints, like olives. Like olives, Crimes of Neglect might not appeal to everyone, and too much could glut the palate, making it long for easier, more straightforward food. Yet, like olives, the slightest taste prompts a craving for more. I look forward to more from Johnson’s bitter-sharp pen.

 

Jacqueline Owens is a Wellington writer whose first novel was Bluest Moon.

 

 

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