The Women in Black by Madeleine St John was the book I enjoyed most last year, so I snatched up The Essence of the Thing when I found it at a book-exchange, but then couldn’t bring myself to read it for almost six months in case it didn’t live up to The Women in Black.
I needn’t have worried. Madeleine St John did not put a foot (or word) wrong in this story of the break-down of a relationship.
Nicola is a gorgeous young thing who has been living with Jonathan, a stodgy lawyer, for six years. One night she returns to their apartment in Notting Hill after having popped out to buy cigarettes and Jonathan wants to talk. Alarm bells sound, rightly, and Jonathan tells Nicola he wants to break up. No particular reason, he says, it just isn’t working out.
The remainder of the book shows Nicola trying to get to the ‘the essence of the thing’, to learn why Jonathan didn’t love her anymore.
The Essence of the Thing is a very different story to The Women in Black and some of the elements I had enjoyed so much in ‘The Women’ were missing. The story of the end of a relationship is always sad, so clearly there was very little of the brightness and joy that I had been hoping for.
Another difference was that The Essence of the Thing was entirely set in England with English characters, while ‘The Women’ was very Australian. The only Australian reference was an in-joke about ‘The Women’ when Jonathan started to play one of Nicola’s audiobooks, a ‘footling tale about some shop assistants in an antipodean department store’. Jonathan was uninterested and disdainful of the story…
The language used in The Essence of the Thing is much more sophisticated than that of ‘The Women’ and although much of the story is told using dialogue between Nicola, Jonathan and a number of their friends, there is a coldness to the characters and the story.
Although The Essence of the Thing was short-listed for the Booker Prize, I much preferred The Women in Black, whose characters took my heart with them on their story. I’m still hoping to get my hands on A Pure Clear Light and A Stairway to Paradise.