Review of The Essence of the Thing by Madeleine St. John.
It can only have been a very, very slow year in the offices of the Booker Prize in 1997. There’s no other way to explain why this preternaturally dull and astonishingly constipated novel could have wound up on the Booker short list or on any list, for that matter — save, perhaps, for the list entitled, “Why British Women Writers Must Be Compelled to Stop Reading Jane Austen, On Pain of Death, If Necessary.” There’s no way to write a spoiler for this novel — unless it would spoil it for you to know that absolutely nothing happens: “Jonathan dumps Nicola. Nicola whinges to her friends. Her friends ride it out. Nicola, who, like every other human being in the same situation, has absolutely no alternative, moves into a new apartment and gets a new job. The End.” I mean really; that’s it. Along the way, St. John ordered about a dozen stock characters from the Modern Brit Lit warehouse: Stiff Upper Lip Bores – 5; Steel Rod Up their Backsides Parents – 4; Promiscuous London Queen, Xenophile – 1, and so forth. Instead of giving her characters emotional depth or having them respond in any meaningful way to what we are evidently supposed to consider a Serious Life Moment, St. John has them make tea. At least 47 times, which is quite a lot in a book this short. The world view here is so tiny you could fit it onto a postage stamp and still have room to do aerobics. Claustrophobic and painfully, utterly irrelevant. I’d like five hours of my life back, please.