Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson

Rose Mae Lolley was a character in Joshilyn Jackson’s first novel, gods in Alabama. As sometimes happens to writers, a seemingly minor character suddenly takes on a life of his or her own and the author can’t escape them. It usually happens within the same novel – witness Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, who ended up its principal character although that role was meant to be played by her son Tom. In this case, Rose Mae’s true story only revealed itself to the author much later, hence the new novel, Backseat Saints, which attempts to explain why the feisty young girl who played an incidental role in the first novel was quite so odd.

Jackson is on record as being a fan of Flannery O’Connor – to the extent, she says, that she made Rose Mae Roman Catholic in tribute – and one can certainly see the influence. This is southern grotesque-lite, though. That’s not to say there isn’t extreme violence in Backseat Saints, because there’s plenty of it, and it’s particularly nasty, too, but what is missing is the spiritual intensity, the haunted and haunting search for redemption and grace which echoes through O’Connor’s humorous prose. I don’t intend that as a criticism of Jackson (or as praise for O’Connor), because I think Jackson is a highly talented writer, but if people approach this expecting O’Connorish insight, they will not get it.

Rose Mae is a confused and unhappy person. As an eight-year-old child, her mother fled her abusive husband, leaving Rose Mae behind. Rose Mae becomes the surrogate punchbag, before escaping herself as soon as she is old enough. As well as the physical damage, however, there are emotional scars, the result of which is that Rose May meanders down Route 66, seeking out one abusive partner after another. Something inside compels her.

She hits the jackpot with Thom Grandee, a Texan football jock whose initial charm conceals a furious and violent temper. They marry and Rose Mae becomes Ro Grandee: almost literally so – in her near psychotic state she becomes a new person, and the real Rose Mae is submerged beneath Ro, who is a chilling mixture of would-be perfect wife and out-of-control trouble-seeker. It is a dichotomy that is all too familiar in women who find themselves in such positions. They seem to need the edge, the danger, the erotic charge set off by these abusive relationships, but finally, always, an end is reached which goes far beyond any complicit agreement and they are overwhelmed by the violence. It is a vicious spiral from which it is desperately difficult to escape. Any outsider will be nonplussed by why women (and sometimes men) stay in such relationships, but evidence show that they do, time and time again. Accordingly, Ro lives a life of marital bliss punctuated by hideous violence, regularly ending up in hospital, where she is warned by the nurse that the next time could be the last. The reader comes to believe this could be true.

Although that sounds like a grim premise for a plot, Backseat Saints is a fast-paced, highly entertaining and often very funny read. It is painful, certainly, but gripping too. After a tarot reading by what appears to be a gypsy fortune teller, Ro is warned that she will have to either kill her husband or be killed herself. She tries to do so and fails. Her life begins to unravel. The trail of chaos leads her back to her home in Alabama, to her father, her real self, the truth of the violence that smoulders within her. She takes to the road, both in flight and in search. What she discovers changes everything.

Backseat Saints is a good book. I could do without every female character ending up a victim of abuse in some way – that is overegging it, I fear, making the plot appear contrived at points and, in a way, lessening the impact of the genuinely awful violence that does occur. What particularly appeals to me about the novel, however, is the way that, although it begins as a study of domestic violence, it gradually broadens impressively into a wider analysis of family relationships in general. The central relationship here is not between Ro and her husband. I won’t say more than that to save spoiling the plot, but it is a brave leap, and one which could easily have gone disastrously wrong. Jackson gets it right.

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