Sed Contra: Reading Madeline St. John

Deal W. Hudson
September 1, 2000

Crisis readers, I am sure, will want to know about the recent publication by Carroll & Graf of three novels by Madeleine St John (pronounced “sin-gin”), an Anglican and a Londoner, of Australian birth. St John’s work deserves to be widely read by Catholics who are in the habit of recommending only writers now long-deceased. If this sounds like an unabashed recommendation to read St John’s novels, it certainly is!

To my mind, St John belongs to a small but growing group of writers—such as Ron Hansen, Oscar Hijuelos, and Torgny Lindgren—who are required reading for thinking Catholics who crave good fiction. St John would undoubtedly be surprised to find herself mentioned in such company. Her books contain nothing of the historical gravitas of Hansen’s recent Hitler’s Niece, the exotic lyricism of Hijuelos’s Empress of the Splendid Season, or the confessional realism of Lindgren’s recently translated masterwork, Sweetness. St John’s books are disarming in a way the others are not: Her characters inevitably, under the pressure of life-changing events, calmly pause for tea. Composed entirely of two- to four-page chapters and largely of dialogue, her novels begin with the offhandedness of a soap opera and end with the wallop of an Ibsen play.

I suggest starting with A Pure Clear Light, published four years ago in the United Kingdom but just released in this country. It traces the return to Christianity of Flora, whose husband, Simon, is carrying on a red-hot affair with Gillian. The halting steps of Flora toward her recovery of faith are convincingly presented. Her two children accompany their mother to church but are puzzled by her sudden change of habits. Her daughter finally asks why she should go to church: “‘Because,’ said Flora, ‘there are two possible worlds, the one in which Jesus is real, and the one in which he is not, and it actually does matter which of these two worlds you believe you’re living in.’” The emptiness of the relationship with Gillian is gradually revealed to Simon by the “clear light” of Flora’s example.

Another reflection on the difference between love and narcissism is found in The Essence of the Thing, nominated for the Booker Prize in 1997. This tale is both more acerbic and troubling than A Pure Clear Light. It begins with the sudden and unexplained breakup of a relationship that appeared, to both family and friends, headed for the altar. In Jonathan’s decision to leave Nicola, the exposure of his shallowness, and, especially, the onslaught of Nicola’s painful loneliness, St John catches the sad spectacle of serial relationships devoid of marital purpose. After Jonathan moves his things out of their apartment, Nicola returns to her bedroom, “a habitation now only for denial, desolation and grief: for whatever dark spirits are sucked into the vacuum left by the departure of tenderness, love and trust.”

In St John’s last published work, A Stairway to Paradise (1999), Alex, a married journalist, and Andrew, a newly divorced academic, duel for the favors of the India-bound Barbara. As in her previous novels, St John explores the reasons men cheat on, and sometimes leave behind, the women who have loved them and borne their children. All the men in St John’s fiction create capsules of insulated time and space where their false loves can gestate. The women grow tired of this fantasy, as in the case of Barbara telling Alex she can no longer pretend their affair does not affect his wife and children: “It’s not separate from the rest of our lives, or the rest of our selves, or the rest of the world,’ she said. ‘It only feels as if it is. That’s the whole point of it. Don’t you see?’”

There you have some flavor of St John’s work and perhaps her temperament. She is not timid: Her characters talk about choosing between a world where Jesus is real or He is not, and they come to conclusions about what real love may allow and what it will not. Yet in spite of grappling with the big issues, her writing remains lithe and lively, her ear for the moral undertones of conversation unparalleled in this generation of writers.

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