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The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John – the waste of a relationship

November 3, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John (1997) Not available in French. (Translation Tragedy)

The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John is set in London, even if its author is Australian. I wonder why this novel needed to be in London, Sydney or Melbourne would have done the trick too. Well.

One night, when Nicola comes home after going out to buy a pack of cigarettes, her partner Jonathan tells her to come and sit down. The ominous “We need to talk” arrives and he coldly informs her that he wants her to leave their flat.

He considers that their relationship has run its course, he doesn’t want to live with her anymore, and since she can’t afford to buy him out, he will. He calmly explains that everything is settled, he’ll be gone for the weekend, implying she should be gone when he comes back. Meanwhile, he’ll stay in the spare room. Come Monday morning, a real estate agent will evaluate the flat’s worth.

Nicola is stunned, she never saw that one coming, she thought they were in a happy relationship. At first, she listens to him, flabbergasted. She thinks he doesn’t mean it. And she slowly realizes that yes, he’s serious and that she’ll have to leave her home.

We see Nicola stumble, trying to pick up the pieces of her life. She’s obliged to move on. Her friend Susannah is outraged for her and tells her she can move in with her family as long as she needs it. The dialogues between Nicola and her friends, between Susannah and her husband Geoffrey introduce a bit of lightness in the sadness. We witness the end of a relationship, the crushing pain inflicted on Nicola by a cold Jonathan.

Soon, Nicola finds her backbone and demands answers. She wants to know what happened, since when he felt that way and she feels utterly betrayed that he never mentioned anything before he reached the point of making such a rash and final decision.

Nicola loves him deeply and he says he doesn’t love her anymore. She wonders what she did wrong and her self-worth crumbles quickly. Her heart is broken but so is her self-esteem. She feels unworthy and questions her judgment: how could she be so blind and misread him that much?

We see her holding on to her job, taking care of the painful details of separating her life from Jonathan’s and living through her heartache. Jonathan’s rash actions planted darts in her self at several points at the same time: her heart, her pride and her self-esteem.

Nicola lay under the bedclothes, hunched around her pain, despising herself.

She despised herself for her failure to oppose Jonathan’s frozen blankness with the tears and shrieks which would have expressed her true feelings. She despised herself for the mean little sarcasms which had been her only mode of attack—she despised herself even though these slights had found their petty targets, because the wounded pride to which they gave expression was—or ought to be—the least of her complaints. She believed that the wound Jonathan had dealt to her heart (her truly loving, trusting, faithful heart) was a more serious and honourable wound than that to her self-esteem. She supposed these two could be differentiated, and so long as they could, she had shown him nothing of the real pain she was suffering. In the face of his cast-iron indifference she was apparently as dumb and cold as he. She despised herself for this dumb coldness. She had never before so plainly been shown the difficulty, the near-impossibility, of speaking truly to an interlocutor who will not hear, but she knew one must attempt it nevertheless, and thus far she had failed even to make the attempt. She swore she would make it on the morrow, and at last, wretched, now, beyond tears, she slept.

But we also see Jonathan’s side and discover a man who made a decision thinking he was doing the right thing. But why doesn’t he feel more relieved or happier?

Madeleine St John vividly describes the end of a love affair. I felt Nicola’s pain and heard with horror all the hurtful words that Jonathan threw at her with perfect calm. As you can see in the previous quote, St John conveys Nicola’s sorrow and you cannot help but empathise with her.

As the story unfolds, we understand that Jonathan is clueless, unable to express his feelings properly, even to himself and whatever they are. At first, like Susannah, I thought he was a perfect rat and then I felt sorry for him.

Apart from watching the train wreck of Nicola and Jonathan’s relationship, I had fun with all the French words peppered in the text. Lots of French words. Without any footnote or translation. How do you deal with that? And, as usual, the only French character has an improbable name considering he’s young and we’re in 1997. After a young Jean-Paul in a book by Max Barry and a young Michel in Zadie Smith, now a young Jean-Claude. Writers, these are typical baby-boomers’ names.

Apart from this slight mishap only visible to a French reader, The Essence of Thing is book like the marmalade that Jonathan’s mother makes. It’s a good balance between the sassy conversations of the minor characters who rally around Nicola and the bitterness of the end of Nicola and Jonathan’s couple.

Highly recommended.

You can read Lisa’s review here.

This was my second book by Madeleine St John. The first one was The Women In Black and my billet is here.

It is also a contribution to Brona’s Australia Reading Month.

  1. November 3, 2019 at 9:56 am

    Bonjour Emma, merci d’avoir mentionné mon commentaire.
    St John set this novel in London because she had moved there and remained there as an expat for the rest of her life. She was one of a small but significant group of Australians (e.g. Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Clive James, Barry Humphries) who felt constrained by (what they perceived as) the conformity and intellectual inadequacy of Australian life. You can read a bit about it in my review of Helen Trinca’s bio of St John, where you can also see the autobiographical elements coming from her bitterness about her own failed relationships:
    https://anzlitlovers.com/2013/05/29/madeleine-a-life-of-madeleine-st-john-by-helen-trinca/

    Liked by 1 person

    • November 3, 2019 at 1:21 pm

      Thanks for the explanation, it makes sense. I didn’t expect it because The Women in Black was set in Sydney.

      This book will stay with me.

      Like

    • Vishy
      November 5, 2019 at 6:20 pm

      Lisa, I didn’t know that Germaine Greer was Australian! So fascinating!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. November 3, 2019 at 11:35 am

    After reading Lisa’s explanation, it sounds like St John was a baby boomer herself, so she was talking about her generation, even if she set the novel in 1997. I am definitely not reading this one right now, but it does sound interesting.

    Like

    • November 3, 2019 at 1:23 pm

      It’s a mix between her generation and ours, then because in hers, most women weren’t as independant as Nicola. She has a career of her own.

      I understand why you’re not keen on reading this right now.

      Like

  3. November 4, 2019 at 5:50 pm

    I read this a few years back and plan to reread it at some point.

    Like

    • November 4, 2019 at 9:49 pm

      It’s really good.
      Apart from The Women in Black, have you read any other St John?

      Like

  4. Vishy
    November 5, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! This looks like a wonderful book but also very heartbreaking. Will add it to my TBR. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Like

    • November 5, 2019 at 9:46 pm

      It’s heartbreaking but Nicola is resilient. St John writes beautifully.

      Like

  5. November 26, 2019 at 11:00 pm

    I read a book by a Welsh author last year where she chose to leave words and sentences in Welsh untranslated and without footnotes. I wondered at the time what her non Welsh speaking audience would make of that…….

    Like

    • November 29, 2019 at 8:11 pm

      It would have irritated me, the Welsh sentences, unless it was to make me understand how clueless a character was among the Welshness around them.
      I think it’s fair to translate but it doesn’t seem to be the rule. I remember reading a book in French with non-translated English words or sentences.

      That said, this is an excellent book.

      Like

  6. November 28, 2019 at 10:08 am

    Love this! Thanks for sharing 🙏🏼

    Liked by 1 person

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