Friday, April 03, 2009

Between, Georgia by Joshilyn Jackson

In succession, I’ve recently read Moby Dick, The Sound and the Fury, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and All The Pretty Horses, Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. Fine novels all, and fine novelists, too, but let’s be honest, none of them are renowned for their insightful treatment of women. In the aforementioned works the highlight of distaff-ness is the prostitute Joyce from Suttree, and the number of female characters in a couple of thousand pages of reading would barely reach double figures. As a result, I’m completely menned-out. So last night I really, seriously, desperately felt the need for something more feminine in my next reading matter. Cue Joshilyn Jackson.

I reviewed her first novel, gods in Alabama, on here recently. A good novel, on the surface a bit of a light, suspense romp but with a weightier core than is immediately obvious. So I was looking forward to her second novel, Between, Georgia.

I have to say I was concerned at the start that I was going to be reading essentially the same story over again. Girl from the south, from dysfunctional family, trying to escape? Check. Collection of strange aunts? Check. Central character who has a heart of gold but is inflexible to the point of insanity? Check. Boyfriend figure who is as bad a male character in a female novel as the female characters in those male novels I mentioned above? Check. Girl goes back to the family home and mayhem ensues? Check. In a discussion thread on here I’ve discussed with Court the need for authors to stretch themselves, to try something new, even if that means failure, to not treat failure as a negative but as a positive – Beckett’s ‘fail better’ idea. One wonders whether Joshilyn Jackson might usefully consider that advice.

Which is not to say that this is a poor novel. Far from it. I think Joshilyn Jackson is a talented writer with a great gift for narrative – her novels flow wonderfully and they are genuinely exciting. Her characters, too, although coming far too close to stock on occasion (in particular, here, the Ona Crabtree character) are engaging. The twin sisters in this novel, one deaf and growing increasingly blind, the other so timid she is frightened by her own shadow, are strikingly original and very appealing. And Jackson is also a very funny writer, with a fine ear for witty dialogue and a good line in tart description.

Her novels are basically light-hearted recreations of the southern grotesque, with all the metaphysical angst removed and with a humorous underbelly replacing the serious philosophical and religious musings. She takes the same basic material as her southern forebears but moulds something entirely different. Thus, while the familiar tropes can be seen – the small town mentality, the resistance to change, the hard-line Baptist view of morality, the families-at-war motif and so on – she is not ultimately looking to make any deep statement. It does make for an interesting read, I have to say – Faulkner as chick-lit, Flannery O’Connor unbuttoned...

When I say the plot is inconsequential that is not meant pejoratively, or patronisingly. On the contrary, it is very neatly worked and, as with gods in Alabama, satisfyingly intricate (although the deus ex machina motif is laboured and unconvincing and, frankly, totally unnecessary). All that matters is that the two families at war are finally brought together in the last great battle and, through the surrounding mayhem, a feelgood resolution is achieved. Jackson is a very talented writer. With Between, Georgia, she provided just the antidote I was seeking to all that testosterone.

But, nonetheless, I do hope that with her next novel she decides to write something entirely different.

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