Jude is dragged out of Alt Country obscurity, out of the dismal loop of booze and sadness baths and the boundless, insatiable loneliness, to scrub up and fly to Australia for a last, desperate comeback tour. Hardly worth getting out of bed for—and he wouldn’t, if it weren’t for Coreen.
But Coreen is dead. And, worse than that, she’s married. Jude’s swan-song tour becomes instead a terminal descent, into the sordid past, into the meaning hidden in forgotten songs, into Coreen’s madness diary, there to waken something far worse than her ghost.
Jude hasn’t seen Coreen for more than ten years, not since the day she married Ben, his friend from university and former bandmate. He doesn’t let them know about his comeback tour until he lands in Sydney and sends Ben an email suggesting they should catch up. Ben’s reply tells him that Coreen’s dead but that Jude should come and visit him and his two young daughters. In a state of shock he spends two weeks maxing-out on all his credit cards before finally accepting, not just the invitation but also Ben’s offer that, until it’s time for his show, he should stay in their old train carriage in the woods, which Coreen had converted into a fairly basic holiday let.
Through Jude’s first-person narrative the reader very quickly realises the depth and darkness of his grief but it is only through his flashbacks to the past, to his reflection that he fell in love with Coreen the moment he met her (when she was Ben’s girlfriend) that we begin to gain an understanding of how she became his muse for the passion he injected into his song-writing, his long-term obsession with her and, ultimately, the self-destructive effects of this unrequited love. I loved that the author laid the foundations for this on the first evening they met, when they drank, chain-smoked and discussed, amongst other things, the power of the artist’s muse (and the cost to the women who carried it), Wagner’s music, Nietzsche’s ‘The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music’, and the opposing forces of Apollo and Dionysius. Their intoxicated ramblings foretold the themes which echoed through the story and, for me, were central to my enjoyment of it.
Through his present day reflections it becomes clear, as Jude spends time alone in the carriage in the woods, that the hand-written pages of instructions Coreen had left for guests have ‘brought her to life’ again for him, making him feel her presence all around him, allowing him to, once again, ‘hear’ her voice. But as he discovers (and the reader knows), happiness resulting from hallucinatory or delusional experiences isn’t likely to survive the acid test of reality.
Just as Jude heard Coreen’s voice so clearly, so too did the author’s evocative prose enable me to tune into Jude’s, to get inside his head. As his grief spiralled him ever deeper into some very dark places it was an increasingly uncomfortable place to spend time in but, like him, I found myself caught up in his desperation, his grief, his doubts about his perceptions and in his fears for his own sanity. It’s usually what goes on inside our heads which can feel far more scary than ‘real’ ghosts or monsters and, just as powerfully as he did in his novel The Attic Tragedy (Meerkat Press 2020), J. Ashley-Smith has demonstrated how brilliant he is at tapping into these deeply unsettling primordial fears.
I appreciated the fact that his ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ writing style created satisfying layers of ambiguity to parts of the story, allowing me to debate with myself as I read whether Jude’s ‘ghost’ was truly supernatural or a symptom of his gradual descent into madness. This questioning was reinforced by the occasional italicised chapters, containing what felt like poetic streams of consciousness from a disintegrating mind, one which was becoming increasingly agitated as the story moved to its conclusion. A twist in the penultimate chapter appeared to provide one fairly comfortable resolution but then, with his last chapter and a final twist – as shockingly surprising as it was masterly – the author unsettled me yet again!
Although this novella is just sixty one pages long, the story it encompasses feels a perfect length because the author managed to make every word within it earn its place, not one felt superfluous. I loved how his elegant use of language evoked such powerful, creepy, atmospheric imagery and brought his characters so vividly to life – I feel that each one of them has become seared onto my retinas. Without going into any detail which would diminish the impact of first meeting her, Ben and Coreen’s daughter eight year old Margot, ‘the mirror image of her mother’, is a wonderful addition to the story!
Two final reflections, I appreciated the very apt title and descriptive cover design – but you’ll need to read this brilliant story to discover why both capture something essential about this unforgettable story!
With thanks to Meerkat Press for an ARC in return for an honest review.
Review by Linda Hepworth
Published by Meerkat Press (20 July 2021)
Paperback, ISBN 978-1946154507