HomeEnglish LanguageEnglish LiteraturePublic and private tragedy on an ill-fated cruise

Public and private tragedy on an ill-fated cruise

The power dynamics underlying power couples tend to be revealed when such couples come apart. In Stephanie Bishop’s fourth novel, The Anniversary, the disintegration is engrossingly extreme and appropriately public.

J. B. Blackwood, the novel’s narrator, is a writer whose rising international reputation makes her suitable for prestigious prizes, New Yorker profiles and morning television talk show interviews. Her former film studies professor and current husband, Patrick Heller, has, over the course of their relationship, and in many ways thanks to her help, become a famous director, “one of the most innovative film-makers of his time”, his films “on every syllabus”. When they methe was forty-five to J. B.’s twenty-four, a charismatic teacher who looked like Keanu Reeves; his students clamoured for his attention. By the time he and J. B. take a cruise to celebrate their fourteenth wedding anniversary, his fame and the frantic schedule that goes with it have taken a toll on the marriage. Patrick’s desire for J. B. is waning and their goals are diverging. Her success, she suspects, has become “a source of resentment”. As the ship, which set off from Alaska, crosses Russian waters towards Hokkaido, Japan, the couple’s storm-shrouded on-deck argument ends when a rogue wave sweeps Patrick overboard.

The book has barely begun. Thereafter Bishop tracks the travels of her suddenly widowed narrator as she deals in public and private with the tragedy. Following a brief investigation in Japan, where Patrick’s body washes ashore, J. B. feels obliged to follow through with plans around the publication of her new novel. She heads to an awards ceremony and book reading in New York, then back to her London home to deal with the aftermath of Patrick’s death. She then returns to her native Australia, encouraged by an offer of support and shelter from her sister.

Bishop’s presiding achievement in The Anniversary is to have created a psychologically layered landscape that simultaneously holds in suspension and keeps in play the crime-genre structure of the book – with its sudden death, investigation, evasions and reckoning all ultimately accomplished. She weaves J. B.’s present woes with memories of her stormy marriage and a shattering disappearance that disrupted her childhood, resulting in similarly unexpected intrusions of the police, press and public. The author accomplishes this feat via a smooth shuttling from present to past: the dryness of J. B.’s mouth during questioning by a Japanese officer, for example, reminding her of the earliest days of her romance with Patrick. Elsewhere her bookstore appearance acquaints us, in the pages she chooses to read, with her childhood trauma. Equally effective is Bishop’s exploration, by way of J. B.’s reckoning with her writing career and the residue of her relationship with her husband, of the unequal ways women and men are treated in life and art. J. B. wants her publicity team to steer clear of a book cover with the “half-faced swooning woman” and embossed gold that are the calling cards of women’s fiction; she knows that the “corseting of the female novelist” forces her to avoid certain subjects, “knowing that what is derided as a talent for counterfactual thinking in the work of a woman is celebrated as a rare feel for the historical moment when it come to the work of her male peers”. Even praise cuts both ways: “the woman’s victory is marked by a definition in the negative, by the idea of an absence. It is unflinching, unsentimental, uncompromising, rather than being labelled for what it is: tough, hard-headed, gritty”.

Patrick’s take on his marriage to J. B. eventually shows itself to be as conventional and skewed as the commonly gendered views of her writing. When she tells him, after an accidental pregnancy and miscarriage, that she has no intention of having children, he can’t accept it, reminding her of “everything that I’ve given you”, bitter at her “failure to offer a good return, a return he was expecting”. As for what she’s done for him, including the novella she allowed him to turn into the film that launched him, he remains half-blind.

Stephanie Bishop honours the feminist spin she puts on the crime genre by revisiting the on-deck fight, revealing the underlying reason for her narrator’s disappointment. The verdict announced at the requisite trial following the conclusion of the investigation provides perfect momentum for the novel’s final, reconciling moments.

Mark Kamine is an executive producer of The White Lotus. His memoir, On Locations, which concerns starting out in the film business, is forthcoming next year

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Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


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