Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Book review: The Bus on Thursday, Shirley Barrett (2018)

This perfect little dark, comic novel is equally full of surprises and gentle wisdom. It’s a book about love and death, desire and hope, and it’s told with a winsome humour all of its own. It’s a real find but because it deals with issues that are particular to women – notably, but not only, pregnancy and breast cancer – it is most likely that most critics will not take it all that seriously. Which is a shame.

The drama involves a young woman named Eleanor Mellett who has broken up with a long-term boyfriend and who subsequently develops cancer. She has chemotherapy and a mastectomy – one of her breasts is removed – and she moves back into her mother’s home in Greenacre (a plain suburb in Sydney’s west; she had lived prior to that in trendy Annandale). She then takes up a position as a primary school teacher in a small town in the Australian Alps named Talbingo (which actually exists; the Talbingo Dam is part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme).

Eleanor is short-tempered and impulsive but is quite normal in most respects. She tends to lose her temper with people, even people who are close to her, and this causes her trouble on occasion. But that kind of trouble is nothing compared to what happens when she moves to Talbingo.

The previous teacher was Miss Barker and everybody, including the children, loved her. She disappeared unexpectedly one day and it wasn’t known at the time Eleanor arrives in town what had happened to her. The truth eventually comes out in the course of the narrative, which has a rather unsuccessful metafictional device at the beginning: Eleanor is supposedly blogging her recovery from the affliction, but this ruse isn’t exploited much beyond an initial stab and eventually you completely lose sight of it. In the end it is unsustainable given what happens to Eleanor and probably Barrett’s editors should have gotten rid of it. A straight third-person narrative would have been fine as the story is strong in any case and there is plenty of action to keep you turning the pages.

The story hinges on a boy named Ryan who is a little too old for the class. Ryan’s parents had died and he is being looked after by his brother Gregory. Eleanor ends up having an affair with Gregory and Ryan imposes himself on Eleanor, telling her that Miss Barker had also invited him to her house (which Eleanor is now living in). One night when Eleanor is stalking Gregory she discovers Miss Barker’s body in the “Pondage”, which is a body of water in the town associated with the hydroelectric system. Eleanor also works out that Gregory and Miss Barker had also been having an affair. Eleanor doesn’t tell anything of what she discovers to the police, because that would involve her telling them that she had been stalking Gregory. This turns out to be a bad decision.

I won’t go into any more details about the basic plot than this but the book also contains a number of secondary characters that are as idiosyncratic as real life usually is. There is Glenda, the office manager at the school, who doesn’t like Eleanor very much. There is the woman at the register in the shop where Eleanor buys groceries whose name is Janelle and who gives Eleanor disapproving looks. There is Friar Eugene Hernandez who runs services at the multidenominational Christian church. There is a bird-like woman who runs activities for local residents in the church. There is the policeman who Eleanor tells about finding Miss Barker’s body. A little town like Talbingo contains worlds and everyone Eleanor meets seems to have some crackpot theory about cancer and what it is caused by.

This novel reminded me of Bridie Jabour’s ‘The Way Things Should Be’, which is the story of a family that comes together in a small country town for the occasion of the wedding of one of the daughters. As in Jabour’s book, which I reviewed here on 27 July, the story of Eleanor in Talbingo vibrates with ancillary suggestion. There are threads linking Barrett’s fiction to other stories in the world, and you get the feeling that the whole novel is some kind of metaphor for life. This is what I really mean by Barrett’s gentle wisdom. In addition to the spooky undertone that travels along the narrative arc like an insistent bass note, there are supernatural elements in this novel, like the bus of the title that appears at specific moments either as a warning or as a way to exit the madness the narrative describes. This element of the plot reminded me strongly of Steven Spielberg’s legendary film ‘Duel’ (which came out in 1971; Barrett is my age so she would probably have seen this film when she was a teenager). Truly, this is a special book.

You can visit Jo Linsdell's Booktastic Thursday Link Up here. Jo invites book bloggers to link to their reviews.


Jo Linsdell said...

Hi Matthew, dropping by from the Booktastic Thursday link up at Great to have you join us.

DJ Sakata said...

Eleanor sounds familiar, I think her poor social skills and temper may have been modeled after several of my family members ;) Lovely review!