Sunday, July 31, 2011

Jeanette

In the first scene of Joe Simpson Walker's new novel, the title character, a sensitive schoolgirl, is at home alone when a masked man forces his way in, binds and gags her, and goes on a rampage, destroying the contents of the family lounge.  The timely arrival of Sarah Thaine, a teacher who's been helping Jeanette with her education since she dropped out of school, scares the intruder away, and all seems to be well.  But Jeanette's behavior in the aftermath of the break-in is strange, and it's soon revealed that these events, and the characters involved, are much more complicated than they appear.

The "About the Author" section for Jeanette reports that "as a writer he is interested in bizarre psychology-- obsessions, compulsions, phobias, taboos, etc."  The obsessions, compulsions, and so on of Jeanette are largely sexual: the novel examines the subcultures of several behaviors that, as the cover copy notes were "still condemned as perversions" in the novel's early 1960s setting.  Of course, to some ways of thinking many or all of them are still condemned as perversions today, and people offended or disgusted by uncommon fetishes should most assuredly find some other reading material.  For those who share the author's interest in the psychology of uncommon drives, however, Jeanette is well worth a look.

The novel's prose, which is divided between first-person narration by Jeanette and third-person descriptions of other characters, is straightforwardly descriptive, avoiding both lurid detail that would smack of the prurient and spurious moralizing that would risk a sledgehammer effect.  The downside of this approach is that it can't always communicate the full intensity of the psychological forces at work.  Jeanette's troubles include episodes where the world around her comes to seem unbearable:
Then something happened.

The sheets were white and blue, cotton and wool, fresh and smooth to touch.  Only they weren't smooth.  They were woven, made up of threads, and if you looked truly closely you could see the weave.  I'd never noticed it before.  I stopped still and stared at it.  They didn't seem the same to hold.  They were rougher.  It was as if the weave was changing, turning coarser.  I could see it.  The smooth white sheet in my hand was becoming criss-crossed with squares, threads crossing each other, up and down and over and under.  The threads were expanding, getting thick as string, thick as window cords, thick as ropes.

I shut my eyes but still saw it.  I let go the sheets and backed away.  I was trembling.  Whatever was happening, it wasn't just my bed.  Wherever I looked the surface of things wasn't normal.  The curtains were closed but the morning light came through brightly.  There wasn't a shadow in the room.  The wallpaper glowed.  The paintwork was thick with lumps of dried paint and flaking off in scabs.  My desk and chair and wardrobe were rough as the bark of dead trees.  In the corner my boots lay on their sides, and they were as black and shiny as two pools of oil.  I couldn't move.  I wondered would everything be like this forever.
But underlying this simplicity of expression is a keen insight into the lengths to which those trapped in restrictive societies will go to fulfill their desires, and an understanding of the moral ambiguities to which those lengths can lead.  The most striking character in the novel, not excluding Jeanette, is Mark Child, the young man who shares some of her darkest secrets.  Although his treatment of her is, from most perspectives, pretty shoddy, it eventually becomes clear that Child is as much a victim of his needs as Jeanette, and that their relationship is, in its unusual and destructive way, based on pure impulses.  Despite the "depravity" of some of the behavior on display, this is a novel with no villains, only people trying to come to terms with unconventional longings.  Smart, humane, and sprinkled with dark comedy, Jeanette is transgressive fiction for thoughtful readers.

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