Monday 16 September 2019

A bold, intelligent debut about a writer's life and the road not taken

Fiction: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, Cherise Wolas, Harper Collins €15.99

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby

Justine Carbery

When Joan Ashby, a precocious scribbler, is 13 she writes notes to herself in her diary on how to become a great writer. These governing principles include such salutary advice as "Avoid crushes and love," "Do not entertain any offer of marriage," "Never ever have children," and "Never allow anyone to get in my way."

Thus begins this astonishing first novel by Cherise Wolas, an incredible book that reads nothing like a debut, so self-assured the writing, so expansive and wholly immersive the plot.

Aged 21, eschewing love and motherhood in favour of writing, her first short story collection, Other Small Spaces is published and makes the bestseller list, winning the National Book Award. Four years later, she follows that up with another collection of short stories, Fictional Family Life, short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize.

She is fulfilling her destiny, dedicating her whole life to her craft, when the inevitable happens. She falls in love and despite her public avowal never to have children, finds herself pregnant, much to the delight of her husband, Martin, a neuro-ocular surgeon. When her son Daniel, and later Eric, are born, she finds unexpected joy in motherhood.

However, her writing stalls and literally sits in a box at the bottom of a coat closet while she juggles the demands of being a full-time wife and mum.

But the urge to write is too strong, is such a part of her soul, that she cannot suppress it entirely. She begins to snatch moments, to write in secret, hiding it from her brilliant husband and demanding children. When a monumental betrayal occurs, Ashby flees to India, searching for a way back to herself, to her artistic soul. And we travel willingly with her, so engrossing the character, so magnificent the writing.

Interspersed throughout this fictional memoir of a brilliant writer are excerpts from the fictional author's short stories and novels, and although the writing shines, the overarching themes connect, and the characters illuminate her personal struggle, these stories-within-stories can sometimes distract from the forward momentum of the novel as a whole.

This unconventional format is brave from such a new novelist, and works for the main part, though may have benefited from some editing.

But mostly it is just a gorgeous read, big and bold, intelligent and thought-provoking.

It is a long book but you alternatively rush through it to find out what is happening, or linger on the construction of a beautiful sentence, the depth of insight behind a paragraph, the sheer magic of a word.

Her characters are complex and nuanced and the themes universal; creativity, motherhood, love, sibling rivalry, the choices we make, the road not taken.

I can see this being a top book club choice, with so much to discuss, from the character's beliefs and behaviour, to the attitudes of society in general.

However I'm assured that everyone will be in agreement on one thing. We are going to hear a lot more of Cherise Wolas. Hopefully.

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