“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Book Review: This Too Shall Pass

This Too Shall Pass
By S.J. Finn
Sleepers Publishing

S. J. Finn’s debut novel, This Too Shall Pass, opens with a series of events that appear to let the reader know what kind of novel this will be: the narrator and protagonist, Jen, changes her name to Monty and falls in love with a woman named Renny; this, of course, results in her decision to leave her husband, Dave, who is placed in charge of looking after their six-year-old son, Marcus. Most readers might imagine the novelistic trajectory such an opening suggests—specifically, a narrative about escape from conventional, bourgeois expectations of motherhood and sexuality and the difficulties accompanying any decision to live a life outside of these 'norms'. But while these issues appear in the novel at appropriate points, This Too Shall Pass is something far more unusual and complex than most readers might expect, which, in and of itself, is a testament to Finn’s considerable skill as a writer.
            This Too Shall Pass succeeds on the strength of its authorial voice. The entire novel is related by Monty, who has a wry wit and combines high-cultural allusion to Borges, T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath with daggy references to lyrics from songs by Ben Lee and Silverchair. Monty also displays a tendency toward lengthy and abstract self-reflection—which makes sense given her profession as a social worker offering therapy and counselling to children at a mental health centre called Marlowe Downs.
More than anything, This Too Shall Pass is a novel about work—which critically examines the difficulties Monty faces as she tries to balance appeasing the complex bureaucracy around her while finding the best outcomes for her patients—and even more specifically about the toll that her commitment to work exacts on those closest to her. Monty’s dedication to Marlowe Downs not only creates significant problems in her new relationship with Renny, but also leaves Monty feeling distant from her son, Marcus. The novel represents this shift on a formal level, as both Renny and Marcus become increasingly peripheral characters in the narrative.
Moreover, for all of Monty’s charm and self-reflection, it’s also clear that she’s often blind to the effect that she has on others’ lives. As frustrating as she finds her ex-husband, Dave, she gives little thought to how her departure has touched him, and often seems to feel as if she is a passenger in her own life, even though many of the troubles she encounters are directly the result of her own decisions. S.J. Finn sets all of this up cleverly in creating an unreliable narrator who is as beguiling as Monty—and it’s to Finn’s credit that she leaves it up to the reader to assess the validity of Monty’s statements. But given Monty’s often-thankless work and the fact that she does care about those in her life, she never becomes unlikeable, but only flawed in an eminently human and understandable way.
            This Too Shall Pass is a wonderful curveball of a novel that tackles big issues in an oblique way and also has the courage to wrestle with a particularly important issue that is too often left out of contemporary Australian literature: the workplace. Despite the fact that most of us spend forty hours or more working each week, too often our novelists omits these issues, focusing instead on personal relationships and matters of the heart. I suspect that some reviewers may be confused by the degree to which the domestic themes of the novel’s early pages are pushed to the side, but these omissions are, in fact, both intentional and incredibly effective, and again display Finn’s considerable talent; at virtually every point she seems in complete control of both the narrative and her narrator’s voice.
            My only slight qualm comes in the very final moment of the novel, in which Monty offers a retrospective summation that feels a little too neat—but, ultimately, this is the only possibility; Monty’s tendency toward abstract self-analysis and work-driven desire for therapeutic resolution are so strong that she can’t help but attempt to sum-up what she’s learned. In this sense, her final comments display both her growth and the limits of her own self-knowledge.
This Too Shall Pass is a clever and deceptively complicated debut novel. As a novelist, Finn shows incredible control over her authorial voice, an excellent willingness to take risks and a restraint in refusing to spell things out too explicitly for the reader—in this book, what’s been left out becomes every bit as important as what’s been put in. Buy it here.

[CORRECTION: Blarg and double-blarg, after calling this book S.J. Finn's debut, it has come to my attention that she has, in fact, published a previous novel called Fine Salt in 2002. This, kiddies, is why you do your research. Sorry!]


genevieve said...

bah I lost my comment - nice review, Emmett. I was intrigued by Monty's wobbliness, seeing some affinities with Rhyll McMaster's protagonist in Feather Man, also by some of the characters at Marlowe Downs, particularly Celia, of whom I would have loved to see more.

Have a feeling that the sometimes shaky, rough-edged narration, as well as the abrupt wrap at the end, says a lot (perhaps unintentionally) about social workers - this novel may be the only one we have about them here in Melbourne, which would make it a rare bird indeed.

Emmett Stinson said...

Thanks, Genevieve! I liked how the book had really strong characters (Celia is a pretty amazing character), but didn't overplay its hand with them. But, yes, it's also interesting to see how social workers approach their job (and this book confirmed for me--not for the first time--that I could absolutely never be a social worker!).

Post a Comment