Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 20, 2013

The Essence of the Thing (1997), by Madeleine St John

The Essence of the ThingI was completely captivated by this book.  A tragicomic tale of love gone wrong, it had me hooked from the moment I started reading it, and I read it all in one go (till way, way past the midnight hour).

I have to admit that I had never heard of Madeleine St John until Text Publishing republished her delicious first novel, The Women in Black, in the Text Classics series. (See my review).  The ANZ LitLovers reading group read that one a couple of years ago and enjoyed its sly wit and Austenesque social commentary.  The Essence of the Thing – St John’s third novel which was shortlisted for the Booker in 1997 – is darker in tone but a more satisfying novel, with a more developed central character.

Nicola and Jonathan have been a couple for long enough for his mother to hope that she can at last pass on the antique ruby ring that she’s been hoarding, but the novel opens with Jonathan’s blunt announcement that the relationship is over and that Nicola should move out.  Nicola is stunned: she had no idea that there was trouble was looming and blunders around in an emotional fog trying to deal with it.

Her friends rally, and as can be seen from the Sensational Snippet I posted earlier in the week, St John is brilliant at witty dialogue that reveals these friends and their shortcomings.  Her female friends are furious with Jonathan and are keen to dissect the situation while their husbands would rather sidestep any emotional brouhaha.   These comic exchanges frame snippets of Nicola’s searing misery so that the novel is not burdened by her grief, economically exposed in brief passages like this:

Nicola too, in her strange bed in Susannah’s work room – at the top of the house, overlooking the back garden – was thinking of Jonathan.  No amount of solitary thought, no amount of discussion with Susannah, however apparently reasonable their conclusions, exhausted the subject.  Nicola was haunted by the suspicion that there was something she had not seen or even imagined; that there was something dreadfully wrong which had escaped her perception entirely: and yet no amount of thought or discussion might ever discover it.  But this night as every night, as many times during the day, she once more entered the maze of remembrance in the hope of finding, this time, the path to the beast which might lurk at its heart. Perhaps Susannah was right in saying that there was a rock in Jonathan’s head: but was it not possible, wondered Nicola, that the rock was in her own head? and that Jonathan, seeing or sensing its presence, had been right to say to himself, I don’t actually love her; let’s make an end of it.

But that being so, she wished – how she wished – that there had been some other way of doing so.  The cruelty of his cold indifference had lacerated her.  It was something she would remember with horror and shame all her days.  It almost convinced her that it was indeed she who was at fault, and the worst of it all was that she could not see how, or where, or why.  It was after three o’clock when she finally slept.  So passed her first night away from the home whose loss compounded the grief which was engulfing her whole self. (p. 152)

As anyone who has ever been through this experience knows, there is no escaping the excoriating ‘maze of remembrance’ that can be kept at bay during the daylight hours.  The self-doubt, the fantasy that if only the loved one had broken the news in some other way it might have been better, the torment of being unable to fathom a reason.  St John shows us all the agony of this common experience, which is as real and painful for the loss of puppy love as it is for the end of relationships long or short.

Only one of Nicola’s friends offers ongoing support.  It’s just so easy for people who are secure and comfortable in their own relationships to let their concern lapse in the tumult of everyday life.  But like Lisa in The Women in Black Nicola is resilient.  There is interesting work in the offing, there is the occasional man who reaffirms her attractiveness, and she is not burdened by grief for the loss of possessions.   These factors enable her to make a surprising decision, because she has indeed discovered ‘the essence of the thing’.

Highly recommended.

You can read more about the author in Helen Trinca’s recent biography.

Author:  Madeleine St John,
Title: The Essence of the Thing
Publisher: Text Classics, 2013, first published 1997
ISBN:  9781922079725
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing


Fishpond: The Essence of the Thing (Text Classics)


  1. Lovely review,Lisa. I think I like this book. It speaks to all of us women who have loved and lost before in so many ways. :-)


    • I think so too, such a common experience but so devastating when it happens.


  2. She is such a great writer isn’t she. I plan to read this, eventually, but I think I’m going to read her books in the order she wrote them. So far I’ve only read the first!! I’ll get there.


    • It’s a shame there’s so few of them, another one of your ‘late bloomers’ eh?


      • LOL Lisa, yes, she is, and her output is even worse than Jane Austen’s paltry 6. Just as well she wasn’t a late bloomer or we may have had nothing!


  3. A book I read in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down.


    • It’s so long since I read it, yet it came back to me straight away as soon as I read your comment – that is (pardon the pun) the essence of a good book, eh?


      • Yes. It’ll stay with me. I keep thinking about it, how the story unfolds, how Nicola gets empowered and Jonathan loses his balance. Fascinating.


        • Yes, and when you think back to that era, there weren’t too many books around that showed that kind of resilience about getting dumped.


  4. […] You can read Lisa’s review here. […]


  5. […] The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St John […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: