Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
Since the Accident
by Jen Craig
Paperback, 195 pages, ISBN 9791740275632, $25.00aud
Jen Craig’s first novel causes the reader to contemplate a number of questions. These questions include: ‘What is art?’ and ‘What makes someone an artist?; ‘How significant is family structure and the relationships within families in influencing a person’s journey to find the ‘self’?’; ‘Is it necessary to leave all that one is familiar with to work out who we really are?’; ‘What is the role of narcissism within families?’; and ‘What is a reasonable amount of control and influence for a parent to exert over a child’s life choices?’
The narrator of Since the Accident is a young woman in her 30s who has lived for many years in Paris. We never learn her name, but we know she is part of a large, Sydney-based family of girls, and that her older sister, Trude, has recently had a serious car accident and is undergoing a long and painful rehabilitation. The narrator has returned to Australia and tells us of her conversations with Trude and her mother, as well as discussing her life in Paris, her reasons for leaving, and her reasons for returning.
The narrator visits Trude in the room she has rented in an inner-city pub. Trude has recently had a relationship with a man named Murray, who was the first person on the scene after the accident. Murray visits Trude in hospital, sends her flowers, and ingratiates himself with Trude and the narrator’s mother, and when Trude is discharged from hospital she moves in with Murray for a time. But Trude has never trusted her mother’s advice and reacts against her subtle manipulation to continue the relationship. The mother is painted as somewhat grandiose; her husband has died and she plays the ‘hard-done-by’ card, even though the girls’ father appears to have been a good husband and provider. She wants more for her daughters, and, in what is described as a ‘Jane Austen scenario’, wants them to marry well, or at least undertake university studies in areas that will enable them to meet the type of eligible men who can provide well for them in later life.
Trude’s interest in art and drawing has lain dormant for many years but, after the accident, the mother encourages Murray to help Trude rediscover her art. So Murray gives Trude a gift – a free trip to a northern New South Wales artists’ retreat, the ‘Getaway Art Workshop’. A large part of the narrative centres on Trude’s conversation with her sister during one afternoon on her pub hotel room balcony, where she discusses the workshop, it’s participants, and the effect it has had on her attitude to both her art and her life. On her return to Sydney she decides to leave Murray and moves into the pub, which, given some aspects of the family’s history (in particular an alcoholic uncle whose illness colours their childhood perceptions), can be interpreted as rebelliousness against the mother’s expecftations. Trude feels comfortable living in a smelly, working-class pub, but her mother is distressed and horrified and cannot understand why Trude would choose to leave the supportive, but pedestrian, Murray. Trude’s changing understanding of the early family dynamics (p.96) helps her to realise that much of her parents’ behaviours were based on fear – fear of difficulty and confusion: “They never once thought of refraining from telling us what we should do, and instead used all the means available to frighten and coerce us into doing as they said”. The problem for the children of this family is that the parents seemed unable to honour their specific desires and dreams for their lives and futures, instead insisting that they, the parents, knew best. The sisters are therefore torn, from a young age, between what they want for themselves and what their mother insists are the right paths for them.
Trude’s account to her sister includes an incident where she is unable to follow her fellow workshop cronies into the pub’s bottle shop because she physically can’t get through the door before it closes. This door incident becomes a symbol of Trude’s new, creative life (p.140), and she comes to believe that she ‘needed’ to have the accident and that this was the catalyst in bringing her back to her art practice. On the urging of another workshop member Trude embarks upon a solo exhibition, but we learn in the end that her ambitions have been sabotaged by her mother, despite good sales on opening night.
As in quite a lot of literary fiction, this novel contains no dialogue. Instead we are given reportage of what is said and felt and thought. Craig writes in a very composed literary fashion; sentences are carefully constructed and weighted. For this reason this reader had some difficulty engaging with the early section of the novel, mainly because the prose had a pedestrian quality and the narrator was such an unknown quantity. It is not until page 68 that the narrator tells us much about herself, and until this happens it is difficult to accept what we are being told on face value, as we do not know enough about her to suspend our disbelief and trust her version of events. It was, however, worth perservering. The second section picks up the pace, and the novel turns out to be much more accomplished and with a much deeper subtext than first impressions had led initially me to believe, and the final denouement is quite shocking in it’s psychological impact.
However the lack of specificity continues to distance the reader from the characters. For instance, on Pages 111-112, Trude discusses a ‘west coast song’ that Murray likes and puts onto her iPod, but never tells us what this song is. There is much detail about these rather self-obsessed characters’ thoughts and feelings, but the lack of specificity of real-world detail, such as this song, has the effect of distancing the reader rather than drawing us into the world they inhabit. Some characterisation is also difficult to swallow – for example, William and Dave, the two brothers who run the pub that the art workshop participants stay in, frequently use French phrases in their conversation. Yet they are painted as country guys and it seems that the only character who would in reality speak like this is the narrator, newly returned from Paris.
Since the Accident is a complex story masquerading as a ‘what happened then’ narrative, as it minutely examines the psychological fallout of being raised by a narcissistic mother. These women find it difficult to trust their own desires and perceptions, and are not allowed to truly be themselves, instead being undermined by the very people who are supposed to love them. This sense of entrapment pervades the novel, and the reader is in the end left wondering if true self-actualisation will ever be possible for these characters. A worthy, well-written first effort, one hopes Jen Craig will build on this promising debut.
About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been writing, publishing and performing since the early 1980s. Her published poetry collections include: Conscious Razing: combustible poems (1986), Writers of the Storm: 5 East Coast Performance Poets (1993), Fit of Passion (1997), Girl With Green Hair (2000), and My Arthritic Heart (2006). Her poetry has been broadcast on television and radio in Australia and the USA, and published in literary journals. A past winner of poetry slams in St Kilda, Melbourne (1991) and Austin, Texas (1994), she has worked with several performance poetry outfits including ‘The Word Warriors’ (1990-1), ‘Stand-Up Poets’ (1992-4), ‘Ozpoets’ (USA tour 1994), and ‘Fit of Passion’ (1995-2000). Since 2006 has been singing and playing bush bass in the Brisbane-based alt-country-blues-roots trio ‘Cathouse Creek’. An experienced factual writer, editor, reviewer and manuscript assessor, she has worked on many community arts projects and in 2004 was employed as a writer for Brisbane City Council’s ‘Creative Democracy: Homelessness’ Project.