“It’s a Monday morning and the train is thick with lassitude. Wherever you look heads loll onto shoulders and eyes are glazed. Only a young woman in the middle carriage seems immune to the warm treacle atmosphere. She sits, straight-backed, intent on the scene scrolling by. It is high summer. The sky is candy-hard and cloudless with the roofs of the houses cut stark against it. The lines are so sharp you might slice your finger if you traced them on the window. She breathes in the lavender and fresh laundry scent of her home town in January and smiles.”
From the moment I read this opening paragraph, I was irresistibly drawn into this remarkable novel written by S.A Jones. The descriptions of places and events are well-crafted resulting in vivid imagery that accompanies a bold and beautiful story about love, relationships, pain, confusion, and what it takes to face the dark places of depression.
Isabelle of the Moon and Stars tells the story of Isabelle, a young woman who works in mundane government position as a data analyst where, after the ‘incident’, she is relegated to making statistical reports that no one ever reads. She knows this because she has started substituting ridiculous material into her reports such as “Sucking up to management: good or bad for building ventilation?” and “ Gonorrhoea and P3: a comparative analysis” and Jack, her boss, hasn’t mentioned a thing about it. Out of boredom and meaningless direction, Isabelle starts ignoring her work and using work time for her own personal projects, namely to plan an Australia Day party on the rooftop of her apartment complex, and to research her favourite topic: Prague.
The unspoken ‘incident’ was an anxiety attack that lead to a serious bout of depression, during which time Isabelle’s boyfriend Karl heartlessly ditched her for another woman. This pushed Isabelle to the darkest of places and almost to the edge of her life. Isabelle hates the words ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’. They are ‘blank, nothing words’ that do nothing to describe the pain, the fear, and torture that she feels when The Black Place comes for her. She loathes that her torment and trauma is diminished to terms such as ‘the incident’ and wishes that her Black Place could come with a splint or cast to prove how real her pain is.
It is only because of her best friend Evan’s support and love that Isabelle managed to claw her way back to sanity and control. Evan is celibate, having made a promise to God to cherish his virginity but has neglected to set a reason or time as to when he can be released from this promise. Isabelle has gone to great lengths to control her life and keep The Dark Place at bay. But things start to unravel when she develops a sexual attraction for her middle-aged boss Jack, and Evan confesses his desires for Isabelle herself. Jack’s wife, Kate, is not going to give him up without a fight. She is well aware that her husband has a wandering eye but she’s no pushover and has a few tricks up her sleeve to tempt him back. In the midst of this chaos Isabelle is preparing to throw an Australia Day party, something she has never done before, and has invited all of the people in her apartment block, many of whom she doesn’t even know, to attend. This gesture brings her into the life of her dear, sweet, elderly neighbour, Mrs Graham, and the relationship that develops between them is one of gentle tenderness and deep affection.
The tension within the novel builds to a sizzling point, and as the summer heat escalates so does the risky game that Isabelle is playing with Jack. Frictions overflow, and a moment of unrestrained passion sees Isabelle doing what she does best: running away. To Prague. Running from Evan, running from her own demons.
I was first heard about Isabelle of the Moon and Stars through an interview with the author, S.A Jones, which featured on Amanda Curtin’s blog, looking up/looking down. The concept of a story that attempts to express through its main character a realistic look at how depression and anxiety are experienced intrigued me. Jones mentioned that she was inspired by ‘a dissatisfaction with the way mental illness is often portrayed in popular culture’. Depression is often still very much misunderstood with sufferers enduring a ‘get over it’ attitude by people in their lives, and society at large. It is a difficult topic to base a novel around but Jones has managed to not only construct a convincing narrative, she has created a main character that is so life-like, so engaging and flawed that I cared deeply for Isabelle, felt her pain acutely.
Jones doesn’t stereotype Isabelle. Instead we are given an insight into the daily struggle that Isabelle faces in trying to keep the threads of her life together, keep the façade of wellness in place while desperately fearful of failure, of her world falling apart, of losing the fight to keep The Dark Place from consuming her. Isabelle experiences intense panic attacks, which are her Dark Place. The intensity of these attacks, the sense of being at the mercy of her own body and mind, which seem to have conspired to kill her, are scenes that have been composed with skill and grace, they are raw and confronting, completely believable, and reflect real depressive experiences.
Depression is often viewed as a dark topic but that doesn’t mean that Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is a dark, depressing novel. The opposite in fact. It is a novel that explores what it means to have depression with sensitivity and insight coupled with humour, strength, courage, resolve, love and friendship. There are wonderful moments of tenderness and developing trust in Isabelle’s friendship with Mrs Graham; there is passion, desire, disappointment and mortification in her relationship with Jack; there is a deep solid friendship and blossoming love with Evan; and there is reflection and unification within herself.
Isabelle of the Moon and Stars was a joyous book to read. The prose was beautiful, heartfelt and kept a steady pace. I was immediately drawn into Isabelle’s life from the first delightfully written paragraph right through to the last. It is an immensely satisfying novel from a very talented Australian author, and I highly recommend you put it on your reading list for 2015.
Isabelle of the Moon and Stars (UWA Publishing 2014) ISBN: 9781742586038