It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy. That is all that really passes for destiny. And you choose it. No one else can give it to you or deny it to you. No rival can steal it from you. And no friend can give it to you. Others can encourage you to make the right choices or discourage you. But you choose. – John McCain, Character Is Destiny
Some characters grab Destiny by the throat and demand he changes the odds in their favour. Some characters. Others cling onto a piece of driftwood for dear life and allow their authors to do with them as they will. Character shapes destiny but circumstances can change character if only in a limited way. McCain is not the only person to assert that what happens in the future is perfectly evitable even if, in practice, it didn’t work out so well for him. The word they use so often is ‘destiny’. A classic example of this is in Lawrence of Arabia where a camp follower strays into the desert and all the Arab chiefs demand he be left to his fate, because the Bedouin have enough experience of the desert to fear it. One of them says, "It is written," to which Lawrence responds, "Nothing is written," strides off into the desert and, of course, returns with the man. Or more recently on Doctor Who:
[S]ometimes knowing your own future enables you to change it, especially if you're bloody-minded, contradictory and completely unpredictable. – ‘The Girl Who Waited’, Doctor Who
None of us know what our future will be like, not like Amelia Pond does in this episode, but we can imagine.
"Character is plot, plot is character," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. That is not always the case sadly and there are many novels where the characters are little more than pawns that the author shoves about as the mood takes them; they exist to serve the all powerful Plot. In Jessica Bell’s novel, String Bridge, even the minor characters have enough flesh on their bones for us to see them as three-dimensional – the only cardboard in this novel is the cover – even if all of them do fall within the shadow of the omnipresent protagonist and narrator, Melody Hill, and yet the irony is Melody is most definitely a cosmic plaything.
I don’t believe in destiny but I do in inevitability. By that I mean that I don’t believe in some extant Power making decisions that leave us no room for manoeuvre; what I mean is that if you put a hungry man in a bakers he will attempt to flee with a loaf of bread. He may or may not be successful but that depends on a whole host of other factors. What is inevitable is that as long as he believes he has a chance of success he will try. If he sees a window of opportunity he will try. He won’t wait to see if the baker down the street has a bigger selection or if the bread is easier to snatch.
And that is very much how I came to see Melody Hill:
I’m a career woman – a mother, a wife, a “happy” homemaker – who lives a socially acceptable existence. Like a metronome. Tick. Tick. Tick. No dynamics, just monotonous responsibility.
Was it inevitable that she end up here? Yes, absolutely. She says so in so many words, this is “the life I chose to pursue,” so she has no one to blame for it being steeped in mundanity; opportunities arose and safe choices made. Melody, like most people who have taken the easy options, is also a dreamer. She dreams of, as she puts it a little awkwardly, “embracing the path I desire to follow.” And what would that path be? Music? Possibly. That Melody believes in some kind of external force is evidenced late in the book when she’s in her car and breaks the handle that opens the window because the first thing she thinks is, “It’s a sign.” Melody has not followed her dream, not because the universe has conspired against her, but because she has not seized the day.
I took an instant dislike to Melody Hill.
That may shock and upset some people, no one more than myself who tends to root for the underdog, but I’m simply telling it as it is. I have no problem with not liking a protagonist. It won’t stop me reading a book because who knows; like Scrooge, we may see that person turn around, become the hero rather than just a survivor at best. Of course as soon a Melody classifies herself as “a ‘happy’ homemaker’ you know that she’s not the slightest bit happy in her marriage. And she has just cause. If I disliked Melody I really took a dislike to her husband, Alex.
Perhaps we should set the scene. String Bridge is set in Athens, Greece, where Jessica now lives. Melody is just about to turn thirty, so is ages with her author. She is married to Alex Konstantinou with whom she has a four-year-old daughter, Tessa. Like Jessica, Melody is an Australian by birth and has a Greek partner. There are numerous other similarities between the two women, for example, both women’s parents have also relocated to an island off the coast of Greece and both sets of parents are musicians. It’s a “mistake” that many first-time novelists make, basing their writing on people and places close to them – all you have to do is think about the kerfuffle in Hannah and her Sisters when Holly presents her first play to her family – but I think this approach is only a “mistake” if the reader is very familiar with the author’s life. The problem is, after doing a lot of research in the lead up to reviewing Jessica’s poetry collection a few weeks back, I did learn an awful lot about her life and I cannot pretend I didn’t wish I could have unlearned all of that prior to picking up this book, because I found it distracting.
In a Q+A at the back of the book, the question of the book’s autobiographicality is the first issue she addresses:
All of the music references and stage fright is drawn heavily from personal experience. I quit playing live gigs because of it. To be honest, I hate it. I’m happy to be sitting alone, in silence, in my office, tapping away at my keyboard. Although I’m still as passionate about music as Melody is, and love to record it, to produce something worth playing at full volume in one’s lounge room, that’s the extent of it. I’m not at all inclined to make something of myself as a musician.
All of the references to life in Athens have stemmed from true experiences, though they are never depicted exactly as they happened. Many things are hugely embellished.
And, of course, who hasn’t had a terrible bout of depression in their life?
The book is written in the first person, present tense. It’s an approach to storytelling that can be very powerful but it also brings with it certain logistical problems, the main one being that we have an imperfect narrator who only has insight based on what has happened to them up until that moment: they don’t know what other people are thinking, they don’t know if things are going to work out for the best or not. A first person narrative is intimate, yes, without a doubt, but without care it can sound unnatural because it is unnatural; we don’t have an invisible person with us twenty-four/seven who we need to explain everything to as we do it. It can be done well and be a best-seller (Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller's Wife, for example) but it is a bit like Vegemite; most people love it or loathe it. I’m the latter – on both counts. On the whole Jessica’s handling works but there were numerous occasions early on in the book where the flow of the narrative was interrupted with frankly unnecessary information, for example:
I tried to scrub out the blood from his shirt by hand in the white porcelain bathroom sink.
You’re talking about something urgent here. Would you really stop to mention that the sink was made out of white porcelain? Even if it wasn’t, urgent what percentage of bathroom sinks these days aren’t made of white porcelain? And again:
I’m not saying that knowing what kind of car she drives isn’t of some relevance but not at a moment when her death might be imminent. Also there are far too many similes used in the book, especially the early part. One of the worst offenders is this short paragraph:
The scent of brand new calms me like a quaff of vodka as Tess and I stroll down the isle of stuffed toys. I drag my fingers over a row of toddler-sized zebras like a schoolboy bouncing his hand along a stranger’s picket fence. The fluffy material used nowadays seems a lot softer than when I was a kid. My teddy bear felt like a heavy wool sweater. But these feel like they’re made from kitten fur.
Four likes is too much. As the book progressed either I got used to them, and also the generous scattering of adjectives, or the writing simply got tighter, but I did find Melody’s voice a hard one to get used to at first. She also thinks a lot. The thoughts are italicised and I know that the modern way to do it is not to use italics but I found it helpful especially since there are a lot of conversations where she’s talking to someone, repeating what whoever she’s talking to is saying to her for our benefit, describing their actions while they’re talking and the setting plus telling us what she’s thinking at the time. Here’s a simple example from early on in the book. Melody arrives home with her daughter after a rough day laden with groceries only to find the lift broken:
“Call Papa. He can come down and help us carry the sopping.” Tessa looks at me and imitates my frown. I smile at her. She smiles back at me. I rest the bags on the ground and release my grip. My fingers ache and sting as I separate them from the sharp, stretched handles. She takes off her school bag and puts it on the ground too. I can’t help but laugh a little as she stretches her fingers as if she were the one carrying the shopping bags.
“Good idea,” I nod, bending down to pull my mobile phone from my handbag. I dial home. It rings. And rings. And rings. Surely he’s not out? “No answer,” I say with a sigh and a shrug, clutching onto the phone so hard that I unfasten the battery cover by accident. I push back tears threatening to erupt like rainwater from a cracked drain pipe.
Tessa puts her school bag on her shoulders. “Oh, well,” she shrugs. “I’ll help you carry the sopping.”
Of course Alex is in. And if I didn’t like him before I liked him even less from this moment on. I have no idea what the typical Greek male is like. I could make certain assumptions, that they might be passionate, forthright, macho-veering-on-misogynistic, argumentative, arrogant, but there really is no such a thing as a typical anything – there will be Americans and Australians who fit that bill – but despite the fact that his wife describes him as being “a good parent” to his daughter at the start of the second chapter of the book, she says nothing about him being a good husband and the evidence piles up pretty quickly to support the assertion that he is neither. He’s not a cruel husband and father – he doesn’t hit his wife and daughter (walls, yes) – but he is self-centred and, by extension, negligent.
There is actually not much story to String Bridge. This I consider a plus. The book is a character study and, if the novel had been set the week before, it wouldn’t have been a very interesting one, but this week there is a spanner thrown into the works; two spanners actually. The first is to do with her job. She gets offered a promotion. The catch? It requires relocation to London. Not something Alex is going to be keen on and that’s putting it mildly. She’s known about the possibility for more than a while and said nothing, but suddenly it’s decision time. Secondly, an opportunity arises for Melody to kick start her music career, not in a big way, but an opening appears to tour with a band for a month, plus she can wangle it so that it doesn’t interfere with the new job. If she takes it. If she takes either of them. She’s not big on risk taking. Is the universe smiling on her? All she has to do it reach out but what does she do? She lets Alex get to her and she’s just about ready to crawl back onto her safe, oh-so-dull piece of driftwood when she learns something about Alex that makes her decide, in the heat of the moment, to go for it; the job, the gig the lot.
And then the universe slaps her right back into place. Off the page. So typical of a Greek tragedy. Where do you think you’re going, missy?
Some authors would have had her flee Greece and start a new life, find true love (her new boss, Richard, is a prime candidate for the position) and be a shining example to womankind, but that’s not what Jessica does and this was where I found myself getting a bit more interested in the book. Not that Melody rises like a phoenix; if anything she reverts to form because she has so little control over what goes on from then on but then we see her years later and everything has pretty much worked out for the best, although not because of anything other than … Fate, Destiny, blind luck, the mood the author was in when she wrote this bit. Sometimes things just work out if you hang on long enough and in that respect Melody is a survivor; she didn’t go down with the ship, she clung to that piece of driftwood and eventually it carried her back into calmer waters, probably in or about Port Phillip Bay (Victoria, Australia).
On the String Bridge website Jessica explains part of her motivations for making Melody the kind of person she is:
I wrote String Bridge because I wanted to break into the women's fiction market and steer it away from the stereotypically glorified woman that is most commonly portrayed today. Not every woman in this world lives without regret, knows exactly what they want, and has the courage to put every essence of their being into achieving their dreams. Not every woman is inspirational to others. Not every woman can leave their comfort zone to better their future. But, so what? Does that mean a less strong-minded woman doesn't have an interesting story to tell? Definitely not.
The back of the book categorises this novel as ‘Women’s Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction’. I have no problem with the first designation – this is not Chick Lit or some sappy beach romance – but neither is it Margaret Atwood. The best fit of books I’ve read recently is True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies. In both books the core issue is the relationship between the sexes and in each case the female at the centre of the book is (to varying degrees) subservient. I don’t like reading about bullies. I don’t like bullies. The world is changing and, to be fair to Alex, he does seem like the kind of man who is not completely averse to the way it’s heading but his upbringing is constantly fighting against his openness to change.
In a recent blog post, amidst a load of other questions about the forthcoming release, Jessica asked: “Are people really being honest when they post a positive review of my book or am I just being humoured?” I just checked the reviews on Goodreads and there are nine 5-star ‘reviews’ and three 4-stars; nothing less. I don’t give stars but this is not a 5-star novel. It’s also not a 1-star novel so don’t start thinking this is a badly-written, poorly constructed book because it is not, far from it. It is, however, her first novel and the only place is up.
One novel thing I should mention is that the book, unusually, comes with its own soundtrack. A “grunge-pop, atmospheric concept album” entitled Melody Hill: On the Other Side was released on 1st November. The songs are written from the perspective of Melody Hill “as she plans a return to the stage, reviving a musical career she previously abandoned for motherhood.”
Let me leave you with the book’s trailer.
Jessica Bell is a literary women's fiction author, poet and singer/songwriter who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, with two gothic rock musicians who had successful independent careers during the eighties and early nineties. She spent much of her childhood travelling to and from Australia to Europe, experiencing two entirely different worlds, yet feeling equally at home in both environments. She currently lives in Athens, Greece and works as a freelance writer/editor for English Language Teaching publishers worldwide.