S.A Jones. Isabelle of the Moon and Stars. Crawley, Western Australia: UWA Publishing. RRP: $27.99, 320pp, ISBN: 9781742586038
From the beginning of S.A. Jones’ Isabelle of the Moon and Stars, we learn that Isabelle is different. She is isolated from fellow passengers on a train when she makes a frank observation, and goes on to a performance review at work where it becomes clear that she does not have a great track record. And yet, Isabelle is a ‘good’ person: she befriends her elderly neighbour, and keeps herself fit and healthy. What’s the problem?
The problem is ‘The Black Place’, Isabelle’s name for the complex anxiety and depression that strikes without warning and leaves her debilitated for days at a time. The truth of it stands between Isabelle and her best friend, Evan, an attractive and eligible young man who dotes on her. They’re not lovers, yet, because Evan has made an unlikely pact with God to remain celibate. Whilst Isabelle’s mental illness is the key obstacle for her to overcome in achieving love, it is this far more conventional goal that is the novel’s core.
With insight and humour, Jones creates a world that offers a number of other couples’ relationships to contrast with Evan’s and Isabelle’s, all of which are flawed in their way. This should, perhaps, illuminate theirs as normal, but I was not able to give myself over to a chaste friendship which indulges in sex jokes, yet has never, until the present action, addressed the reasons for Evan’s celibacy, nor the details of Isabelle’s mental health issue. Even ‘easy, uncomplicated intimacy’ (211) between consenting adults requires something to live on.
Desire is the real theme of the novel and its most interesting passages address the physicality of desire, as well as its metaphysical potential. The same strategy is used to describe the effects of Isabelle’s anxiety and depression as a tangibly manifested sensation in an admirably effective way. Isabelle is haunted by the shabby treatment metred out by her ex, Karl, a superficial and nasty piece of work, who accused her of being ‘insubstantial’. Coming late in the book, this provides some context for Isabelle’s thwarted desire, the emotional difficulties that stop her considering the possibility of a relationship with Evan.
It remains a novelistic problem, however, to track the unfolding relationship between Evan and Isabelle whilst being denied its physical dimension because of the contrivance of celibacy. This means the book’s ultimate direction is a kind of ‘first love’, and the machinery that delays its gratification seems more appropriate to a young adult novel. There is one—elided—sex act at the end of Part One, after which Isabelle flees. We read Evan’s emails to her, and simultaneous epiphanies must stand in for orgasms towards the end of the book.
Part Two sees Isabelle in Prague, reflecting on the nature of good and evil and opening a new frontier for the novel. But the ‘gross conflation of her personal sorrows with the ugliness of the twentieth century’ (305) remains an incidental and not a necessary connection. Perhaps there would be more to take from Isabelle’s vision of Hell in Prague if she had not all along been presented as essentially good and functional. Even her dysfunction at work is a kind of goodness, aesthetic if not moral, because the corporate workplace is so relentlessly caricatured that one can’t help but reject anyone tasteless enough to succeed there.
The novel’s final pages see a conversation between Isabelle and a woman she sits next to on the plane home that offers a more nuanced, grown up perspective on desire, errant desires that lead to bad choices. It seems like marshalling her desires as an adult woman, directing them towards the right man, is Isabelle’s best protection against ‘The Black Place’.
Vahri McKenzie lectures in the Arts Program at ECU South West, with a focus on Writing and Literature. She publishes short fiction and non-fiction and makes performance works. Vahri’s research projects engage with creative artists of all stripes, their methodologies and pedagogies.