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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

String Bridge


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 Hannahfirst-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:

1976 mini cooperI visualise the bus driver suffering from impulsive road rage and squashing my olive green 1976 Mini Cooper like an empty soda can.

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.”


“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.

greek_tragedy_l_3_cAnd 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.

CD CoverOne 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.


JessicaJessica 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.

Jessica has also published a book of poetry called Twisted Velvet Chains. A full list of poems and short stories published in various anthologies and literary magazines can be found on her website.


Mairi said...

Hi Jim. I'm thinking about your comment in the review of Tim Love's poems, about good poetry misdirecting.I'll have to spend some time with that.
Poor Amelia. Thank goodness things came right for her in the end. The whole idea of destiny - and you've given it impressive coverage here - is worrying. I think I'm with Lawrence and Amelia in principle but am probably not bloody minded enough to be effective.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think we all like a bit of misdirection, Mairi, as long as we don’t get completely lost. I like starting my blogs off topic so that readers wonder, “What the hell is Jim on about?” and then I pull them gradually into the posts theme proper. Hence the quote from John McCain of all people to open up a book review about a frustrated ex-pat. I don’t know how many other reviewers will pick up on the whole destiny thing but it jumped out at me and that’s why it’s good that Jessica has had such support for this books because only by comparing reviews with someone come to appreciate if the book will be for them or not. I think perhaps one of the reasons I didn’t take to Melody is that I empathised with her and as I don’t have much time for the person I was then it’s perhaps understandable that I wouldn’t have much time for her. I never felt that Destiny had it in for me, nor God but people nowadays tend to attribute the Universe with more control over our lives than it deserves. There have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve approached an off ramp but felt I was duty bound to keep on the straight and narrow. More fool me.

LTM said...

It's interesting to read a male perspective of a book that expertly handles a uniquely female experience.

Destiny aside, I wonder if anyone would ever expect a man to give up a career or at the very least feel guilty for *not* giving up a career or a treasured pastime to "be a good father." Or to be a better father... Not being male, I wouldn't know, but I sincerely doubt it.

As enlightened as we are in this new Millennium, the pressure to put "their" needs above your own is still very strong for many if not most women. And I think the internal struggle that pressure creates is the focus of this very well-written debut novel.

I have to take exception to the parts of this review that criticize Jessica's ability as a writer.

It's one thing to say, "I don't like this book." Period. But to criticize her talent is unfair and just simply wrong.

Jessica is a talented writer who handles a difficult topic and flawed characters with an understanding and sensitivity that is impressive to me, who has at least as much or more in common with the MC than she.

If there were too many "likes" in a passage, I would point to the editor rather than the writer. This is not a self-published book.

And as for the white porcelain of the sink, I found that to be a great description in a country where sinks can be made of marble, aluminum, clear or colored glass, and whatnot. Description and metaphor are Jessica's forte, and in a story that's told largely through the thoughts and observations of a musical main character, it makes perfect sense.

I think women will appreciate this book for the message it contains, and the writing is beautiful and evocative. Best~

Jessica Bell said...

Thanks for at least giving it a go, Jim. It's definitely more targeted toward the female audience :o)

Jim Murdoch said...

At the end of the day, LTM, a book review is only an opinion and people’s opinions differ. There were already a few reviews of this book up when I wrote mine and they had nothing bad whatsoever to say about the book. And that’s fine. I didn’t connect with Melody. As I said in my comment to Mairi I suspect this is because I could relate to her. I’d like to think that I can rise above that and praise a book where it deserves it. I’ve tried to give brief examples of what I didn’t care for in the style. I agree totally that the editor needs to take some responsibility but I have no doubt that Jessica approved the proofs and so, ultimately, she takes responsibility for what end up on the page; it’s her name on the cover. I picked one paragraph to illustrate my point about the similes but, for my tastes there were far too many in the book. I agree, Jessica is a talented writer. I was most impressed by her poetry collection. It was not my intention to tear the book apart because overall it is a good book and I say so and, if she trusts me to read her next book I’ll be happy to do so but just because I like a person isn’t going to stop me for being honest. Yes, I’m a man, but I’m really not interested in especially male topics and I’ve read several books recently by females like the one I highlighted in the article, True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies. Some I have connected with more than others but there wasn’t one I gushed over. I think a lot of women will relate to the main character here – there is nothing wrong with the heart of this book – and they’ll probably love her use of metaphor. And that’s fine.

And, Jessica, you’re welcome. By the time all 150 reviews and interviews are up no one is going to pay a blind bit of attention to my review but I respect you too much to be anything less than honest. This is your first novel and okay some first novels are classics but mostly not. Although I have a soft spot for my own first book a part of me would dearly love to rewrite the whole damn thing.

There is no doubt that more women than men will relate to this book and I expect more women than men will read it. This bothers me because it’s the men who need to read this book. The women know what it’s like to be oppressed. You might want to give thought in future how you might market/target your books to reach a wider audience rather than preaching to the choir. One way might be to have a male protagonist. It’s a challenge writing in a different gender – in my last novel all the main characters are women – but it’s certainly not aimed at a female readership.

Dave King said...

I, too got hung up with the white porcelain hand basin. I was glad that you then mentioned it, as I was beginning to wonder if I was being finicky. I don't think I would get a lot out of this, though - not as much as reading the review, put it that way.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have never been a fan of descriptions, Dave, and I know in this particular case it’s just one word and I seem petty for bringing it up, it just seemed like the perfect example of a word too many. I agree totally with the previous commenter who pointed out that the sink didn’t necessarily have to be porcelain. My point is that’s it isn’t important enough to mention at all. I wrote a review a few months back of a book called The Pink Hotel and whereas I praised the author for some of her descriptions I also pointed out where they let her down citing this – to quote my review – “groan-worthy” example:

I was wearing Lily’s tight black knee-length dress and a vivid smudge of her red lipstick over my mouth this time. Her earrings framed my pale opal face, and her sunglasses kept the hair out of my eyes.

People don’t talk like that. Yes, I know it’s a book but I like to feel that I’m being addressed directly by the narrator and I’m looking for a narrative that flows.

Dave King said...

You pick on one of my obsessions with regard to poetry - that there is a definite limit to the number of adjectives any one poem can carry. To my mind it is usually a very small number indeed. I am rarely moved by a poem suffering from adjectosis.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jim and Jessica - I enjoyed reading this .. and as I haven't read the book - I will now be a little more aware of what's to come - I enjoy having some extra background - so your review will come into its own as I read through (in due course - I add).

Thanks - I'll probably be back to re-read this .. Hilary

Jim Murdoch said...

Delighted so see you still want to read the book, Hilary. I was a little worried that because it didn't quite work for me that might put people off. Personally I don't let reviewers make my mind up for me. They offer an opinion, present their case and then leave it up to me to decide. I've bought books that have had rave reviews and hated them. It can work both ways.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jim .. I hope a lot of others who are reviewing Jess' book will read this .. and inwardly digest - purely for process - as it's an opinion as you say - but coming from a worthwhile source as I say .. so good for a read through by other bloggers and reviewers ..

Cheers Hilary

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Hilary. I do hope new reviewers make up their own minds before they start looking at existing reviews for ideas. It’s tempting I know. I usually have a wee look after I’ve written the body of my article to see if I’ve missed anything.

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