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Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S.A. Jones

November 22, 2015 13 comments

 

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S.A. Jones 2014 Not available in French.

Jones_IsabelleOur family volunteered to welcome an Australian teenage girl in our home for five weeks. She’ll stay with us, go to school with our daughter and will be here to live a French life for a while. She’s from Perth, so I asked Lisa from ANZ Lit Lovers to recommend books set in Western Australia. See, I have a very good reason for buying and reading something out of the #TBR20 list. 🙂 (Still 3 to go, btw). This is how I ended up reading Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S.A. Jones, a novel I enjoyed very much even if I still have no clue about what Perth looks like.

Ever since The Incident happened two years ago, Isabelle is more surviving than living. She has a dead-end job in statistics and she can’t find any interest in it. Her boss Jack keeps up the appearances about her performance and hides that she’s doing useless reports. Juliette is only hanging on by a thread.

The book opens with her journey in Perth’s public transports and her observation of other people, commuting to work like her. I was hooked right away by Jones’s style:

It is a Monday morning and the train is thick with lassitude. Wherever you look heads loll onto shoulders and eyes are glazed.

Thick with lassitude is really what you can see in the eyes of commuters sometimes. This journey shows us an Isabelle very permeable to the atmosphere around her, to people’s mood.

Isabelle lives in a condo and is a frequent user of the pool of her complex building. She loves swimming and racing against her best friend Evan. I need to say this to explain the book cover unless it is a subtle reference to Virginia Woolf’s drowning. (To me, it’s just another cover being a liability for the novel it advertises.) Isabelle befriends an elderly neighbour, Mrs Graham, who suffers from arthritis but still makes jokes about it. (‘How’s the arthritis today?’ ‘I’m thinking of giving it a name. Hitler maybe. Or Pol Pot.’) Juliette feels that Mrs Graham is very lonely and on impulse, she invites her to a party she’s throwing on the rooftop of the complex for Australia Day.

Only Isabelle had no actual plan to throw a party. Not willing to disappoint Mrs Graham whose eyes lit up at the idea to be invited somewhere, Isabelle feels obliged to organize that party now. Evan comes to her rescue and this project helps her move forward from The Incident and its downfall. Meanwhile in the office, a new attraction grows between Isabelle and her married and much older boss Jack. (The attraction between Isabelle and Jack is stirring like a bear waking from a long, hard winter.)

As we follow Isabelle in her daily life, we learn more about The Incident and more importantly about The Black Place.

There is just her, Isabelle, and The Black Place. The effort of holding herself rigid folds in on itself, like a tremor at maximum velocity. Pins and needles prick her hands and feet. Pain radiates from her blue-turning heart. Involuntarily, her grasping lungs buckle and suck at the air. The Black Place glides under Isabelle’s skin and displaces her. Isabelle is no longer Isabelle. She is a container of despair, a repository of every free-floating grief seeking a home. The panic is as foul as it is inexplicable. It is the panic of the diver breaking the surface and turning, turning, turning to find water at every horizon, the boat gone. Of the woman who wakes in the dark to the shadow of the intruder on the bedroom wall. Isabelle’s mind slips to blades, laceration, knives. Sharp edges that can part skin and leach the bilge until the world grows dim. The idea of blue steel against her skin seems suddenly, achingly beautiful. Isabelle makes a fist and views the underside of her wrist dispassionately. The veins are deep, just a faint blue tracery under her porcelain skin. The moment of contact with the blade would be climactic. Benedictory.

This Black Place has been Isabelle’s cross since her teenage years. She wants to remain in control and tries her best to fight it, to put herself away from temptations and risks to be swallowed by it. Evan is her safe place, her rock and her crutch.

It reminded me of Addition by Toni Jordan because it focuses on a character who has to live with a mental illness. Grace and Isabelle both have to tame something that prevent them to have a “normal” life, whatever that means. Isabelle of the Moon and Stars shows how much energy this illness takes from Isabelle and also what it inflicts on Evan who’s close to her. He helped her after The Incident and he bears the scars from it. The Dark Place, that I picture like the dementors in Harry Potter, something that sucks the life out of you, affects Isabelle but also the people who love her. It’s part of her and she needs to live with it. But what about the others? Do they have to live with it or should they run away to protect themselves?

Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is an atmospheric novel, well-served by Jones’s excellent prose. She balances serious descriptions of Isabelle’s mental issues with a good sense of humour. See here, when Isabelle arrives to work and a new motivation program is implemented by management:

Overnight the office has been festooned with new corporate regalia. P3 – I Believe! blares a poster with a photograph of a wildly smiling Carol Anne giving the thumbs-up. P3 paraphernalia litters Isabelle’s desk – a sticker (P3, PYou, PMe), a box of pencils emblazoned with Performance with a star for the ‘a’ and a new name tag (I am Isabelle and I am P3). When Isabelle turns on her computer a message bleeps at her encouraging her to ‘like’ P3 on Facebook.

I strongly discourage anybody to try to implement that kind of stuff in France for employees would roll their eyes, laugh and throw the goodies away. Anyway.

I didn’t want to tell too much about the plot because it would spoil another reader’s pleasure. Although The Dark Place is a central part of the book, to the point of being a sort of ghost character, it’s not a depressing book. I rooted for Isabelle and hoped she could find a way to dompt this beast and muzzle it. Lisa’s review can be read here, but beware it gives more information about the plot than my billet does.

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