My apologies to those of you who saw an earlier draft of this review: I accidentally clicked Publish when I hadn’t finished writing it.
What can I say? I’d finished reading The House in Smyrna (review and Book Giveaway coming on Monday Feb 2 when the publisher’s embargo is lifted) so I took Isabelle of the Moon and Stars off the TBR at 11.00PM to make a start on it at bedtime – and didn’t turn out the light until I’d finished the book at 3.30AM. Yes, it is that good.
Books written to an agenda are rarely successful IMO, but this one works. The publisher’s blurb tells me that the author S.A. Jones wrote
out of dissatisfaction with the way that mental illness is portrayed in contemporary culture. Works like Silver Lining Playbook and The Rosie Project suggest mental illness is a quirky idiosyncrasy and that its vicissitudes are conquerable by love.
Well, as you can see from the concluding thoughts in my review, I had my doubts about the viability of the relationship in The Rosie Project too, and one might wonder about the one depicted in Toni Jordan’s Addition for the same reason. But there can be a cruel world of difference between a minor obsessive disorder or high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome and other much more debilitating mental health conditions and the important thing for everyone to get right is to treat each person as an individual, and to avoid stereotyping.
I know a genuinely good, kind and loving man who tried for some years to live with a bipolar partner and was wracked with guilt when he finally admitted to himself that he couldn’t continue with it. What I liked about Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is that it doesn’t depict mental illness as merely an exasperating quirk. It shows not just the depth of suffering that comes with a capricious and devastating disability for the person with mental illness, but also the unhappiness that it inflicts on the man who loves her while he tries to negotiate the relationship. At the same time the novel also shows that Isabelle’s condition is only part of her, and it doesn’t define her.
What makes this work is the (often unsung) structure of the story. The reader meets Isabelle as a capable, functioning, tertiary-educated employee with a droll sense of humour. Like her boss, we know about ‘the incident’ which caused some difficulty at work, but we do not know exactly what occurred nor its cause. It is not until the reader is thoroughly engaged by the plot trajectory (the love interest, the sleazy boss, Isabelle’s plans for an Australia Day party on the neglected roof of her flat) that her condition in extremis is depicted in harrowing detail. She experiences The Black Place alone in her flat, where she has locked away her knives and the medications she might misuse, but she still has opportunities to surrender to despair.
It is then that the reader is faced by the same existential questions as the characters: how should a good person respond? Would we walk away as Isabelle’s lover Karl did when he found out? If Isabelle has the courage to tell, will Evan walk away too? Does he understand what is involved? Can he ever understand? Does she owe it to him to let him try, when she has been so badly hurt before?
The extent to which the reader engages with this likeable character is tested when, in a panic, Isabelle takes a flight to the Czech Republic, without telling the people that she should. My reaction was horror: what The Black Place returns in a place where she has no support network? That was until I realised that sadly, Isabelle doesn’t really have a support network back in Perth, either. Yet when she is confronted by darkness of a different kind at Terezin it is she who offers support to a German tourist afraid to confront the weight of history.
Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is a terrific book that offers much to think about, but it’s also an unsentimental story of love and hope and courage.
Highly recommended. I expect to see this novel on any number of shortlists…
PS I was delighted to see amongst the acknowledgements at the back of the book, the names of some of my favourite writers that you’ve come across on this blog: Andrea Goldsmith, Jane Gleeson-White, Amanda Curtin, Annabel Smith, and soon-to-be-published (how exciting!) Jenny Ackland who I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time last year.
Author: S. A. Jones
Title: Isabelle of the Moon and Stars
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of UWAP.