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THE ESSENCE OF THE THING

By Madeleine St John
New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1997
ISBN: 0-7867-0560-4 234 pages

Bob Corbett
June 2016

This is an extraordinarily creatively written novel. Indeed the title is very descriptive of the novelsí structure. The central couple, Jonathan and Nicola lives together but arenít married. Jonathan comes to believe that Nicola is oppressing him and he simply announces to her that he wants her to leave the apartment which they are purchasing together, and that he will buy her out.

Clearly this is a critical confrontation between two people, yet it takes just 2 1/8th pages for him to dump this volatile and shocking information on Nicola. This opening chapter of THE ESSENCE OF THE THING sets the tone. There are 69 chapters in this 234 page novel, thatís 2.4 pages a chapter. Each chapter advances the readerís knowledge of their relationship and, especially with Nicolaís responses, feelings, plans and actions and the acts and feelings of her family and friends. Each chapter is the essence of some thing Ė of telling THIS friend, or thinking of what to do next, or of . . . on and on with all the various things one might do, think, say, become, respond and on and on.

I found the structure incredibly satisfying and intriguing. I began to think of many long novels Iíve read that could have been brilliantly redone in the mode of THE ESSENCE OF THE THING.

Along the way the story is quite believable. At first it is rather hard to understand this seeming bluntness and thoughtlessness of Jonathan, but little by little we get to that essence: he is truly a brute, unthinking, selfish and thoughtless fellow. We fairly quickly realize that Nicola is stunned, deeply hurt, confused, yet thoughtful and resourceful. Further, fortunately, she has dear and helpful friends and family.

The story is interesting, even gripping and suspenseful, but it is the structure of this novel which most fascinated and attracted me. I was caught up in the power of this structure where each important bit of information which advanced the story and our understanding of Nicola and her response and Johnathanís ability to be so uncaring and unthinking was all compressed into these tiny bits of the essence of each tiny step of the break up, the confusion, the healing, at least on Nicolaís part.

The novel is a good read on any account, but the structure of this particular manner of telling the story is quite an achievement of daring and brilliant writing.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu