Oct/Nov 1998 Book Reviews

The Essence Of The Thing

Madeleine St John
Fourth Estate, 1998 234pp
ISBN: 1 85702 707 8

reviewed by Ann Skea

"There's no nice way to say this", he said. "But I've decided - that is I've come to the conclusion - that we should part".

Nicola has just returned from a quick dash to the corner shop and is unaware that anything is wrong with her relationship with Jonathan. Understandably, she has some trouble taking in his abrupt decision.

Jonathan, a cold fish of a lawyer, is adamant. Nicola must move out of their co-owned flat, unless of course she wants to buy him out. Nicola, as one might expect, cannot afford to do this.

The parameters of Madeleine St John's novel are suitably chauvinistic, Nicola (eventually) learns to trust her own strengths, Jonathan gets his come-upance, and (female) honour is satisfied. It sounds like classical feminist fodder and in essence it is, but it is also a sharply observed picture of human relationships and St John skilfully reveals the pretensions, foibles, strengths and frailties of all her characters through their language and their verbal exchanges.

There is no doubt that these characters are English and are part of the comtemporary London scene. Madeleine St John conveys this with wit and precision. Their reactions, relationships and responses, however, are universally recognisable and very human. Remarkably, with such brief acquaintance with each character, only Jonathan's father, Hugo, struck me as a caricature, speaking like an escapee from one of Michael Palin's 'Ripping Yarns': "Splendid, he says! Splendid! Wants horsewhipping! Croissants! London! Horsewhipping!".

This is the perfect book for a long journey. The chapters are short (one or two pages each, although the breaks in the text often seem somewhat arbitrary), the action is swift and St John holds your interest and draws you on to an ending which is satisfying and poignant in its revelation of Jonathan's limitations and needs. It is an entertaining and enjoyable fable of a modern-day de-facto relationship.


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