10.6 C
Friday, June 2, 2023
HomeAustraliaAn unreliable narrator and a stormy relationship propel Stephanie Bishop's moody new...

An unreliable narrator and a stormy relationship propel Stephanie Bishop’s moody new novel


Cathy Caruth’s foundational work on trauma theory, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Story, and History (1996), contains a chapter on the concept of a falling body.

Caruth sees this as a way to understand the representational capacity of language. She quotes Paul de Man, who describes the relationship between author and text on the basis of a puppet show:

The puppets do not move in themselves, but only in relation to the movements of the puppeteer (…) All their aesthetic charm derives from the transformations undergone by the puppeteer’s linear movement, as it becomes a dizzying display of curves and arabesques (…) The aesthetic power is neither in the puppet nor in the puppeteer, but in the text that spins between them.

The doll seems to dance more beautifully than the human body because, controlled by invisible hands, it is temporarily released from the gravity that causes bodies to fall. Caruth thus argues that the beauty of the dancing doll

lies in the elimination of any reference weight of a personal authorizing self; the puppeteer is completely absorbed in the movements of the puppets. The graceful image of the human body arises here precisely in the loss of any referential particularity.

But separate the puppet and the puppeteer and the beauty is lost. One cannot create beauty without the other.

Read more: Lessons from Ian McEwan, his most autobiographical novel, is a new experiment in vulnerability

Creative synchronicity

Caruth’s example describes the synchronicity inherent in artistic creation. At the same time, it recognizes that “direct or phenomenal reference to the world, paradoxically, means the production of a fiction”.

These ideas are at the heart of Stephanie Bishop’s latest novel The birthdaycentral to his commentary on art-making and its potential to have a traumatic effect on the artist’s life.

Review: The Anniversary – Stephanie Bishop (Hachette)

Author JB Blackwood has booked a luxury cruise to celebrate her wedding anniversary with her husband Patrick, a prominent film director and former JB professor. She is at the peak of her career. An awards ceremony is scheduled to conclude the cruise, where JB will receive a major literary award for her latest book.

Their anniversary is a time for the couple to reflect on all they’ve accomplished together, but also build grudges. As a storm looms on the horizon, simmering tensions between JB and Patrick soar. Drunk and angry, they argue on deck as the rain lashes the ship. Then Patrick falls overboard and is lost.

Like an Ian McEwan novel, The Anniversary captures this moment of great drama in its first few pages. The story that follows explores the fallout from the incident.

Still coming to terms with the horror of Patrick’s death, JB is caught up in the breakneck schedule caused by her new book and the prize. As the novel progresses through the four “books,” her life unravels. The truth begins to emerge – not just about the incident on the ship, but about JB and Patrick’s entire life together.

Read more: ‘If you don’t succeed at first, lie, lie again’ – in A Country of Eternal Light, Paul Dalgarno explores a life fragmented by grief

Traumas and losses

JB’s life has been marked by a series of traumas and losses, including, most notably, the disappearance of her mother when she was just a child. She has mined these memories for writing, lifting and adapting scenes from her life into her work so that each of her novels seems to follow the experiences of the same characters and places.

At the same time, JB’s memories of those experiences have faded, not only with the passage of time, but also with her fictionalization of them.

This unreliability is apparent even in seemingly innocent moments. For example, JB records her niece saying “Tell him, Lucie – she may have even said Aunt Lucie at this point”.

1683522898 233 An unreliable narrator and a stormy relationship propel Stephanie Bishops.0&q=45&auto=format&w=237&fit=clip
Stephanie Bishop.

It’s a subtle correction, but one that appeals to the reader—well, what did they say, we wonder. And if JB can’t get this detail correct, what else could she be misremembering or not recording?

Even her name is unstable. Her family calls her Lucie, her first name. She publishes as JB – her middle initials (for Joy-Beth). Patrick often affectionately calls her by her middle name, Joy.

The truth is hard to come by in The Anniversary. Like the “rumors” of Patrick’s death floating around the ship – “every whispered possibility (…) a near-truth, a probability, the real story” – JB’s narration can only approximate the truth about every aspect of her life. As she notes,

There is never just one version. (…) I couldn’t tell them that I too often doubt my own version of events. There are things I don’t quite remember, but I’m sure happened – I have a sketch of them in my head, but the substance is missing.

That the novel contains no direct markers of speech reflects this loose connection to truth. JB cannot make a consistent statement about what she saw prior to Patrick’s death, a problem she had also experienced as a child when she was interviewed by police about her mother’s disappearance:

I didn’t say enough, and then I said too much, and then what I said first didn’t match what I said next.

Details about JB’s life that might seem important are brushed off. A poignant profile article refers to her migrant parents, her father’s life in India, her childhood in the Australian bush.

You get the sense that JB is finely shaping her life for us, painstakingly editing and revising the manuscript of her experiences. Only what she wants us to know gets recorded. Even the apparently unequivocal fact of a video recording is called into question. Patrick’s fall from the ship is captured on CCTV, but the scene is incomplete, fragmentary:

The images were grainy: the white side of the ship, the gray sea. In this, his body appears black, it seems as if he bounces off the side of the boat, or tries to cling to it, like a cat jumping, tumbling. Later, on the television news, they made a spotlight around his body as it fell, a lighter, brighter circle that revealed his outline. They slowed down the images, zoomed in. Repeated it from the beginning. It didn’t show the top rail, the one he went over, just the side of the ship. Not the beginning or end of autumn. Like in a dream.

Patrick’s fall is made so cinematic. JB compares it to a long list of other falls in the movie: La Roue, The Matrix, Lethal Weapon, The Fugitive, The Game.

But all her examples are fictional. She does not mention the most famous image of a falling man: the nameless man who jumped from the burning and collapsing Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. In this way, JB’s attempts to fictionalize and manipulate are subtly pointed out. Her version of events appears to be further and further removed from reality.

Bishop’s novel is a moody and clever work on the nature of the relationship between art and life, the way the puppeteer and puppet rely on each other for the creation of beauty. But it also involves art produced within a marriage—a marriage in which two artists create art from the same lifetime, with each’s creative labor informing the other’s work. The Anniversary breaks open the grudge of artistic synchronicity that exists between them.

The author of what'snew2day.com is dedicated to keeping you up-to-date on the latest news and information.

Latest stories