Painted Ladies: A book review of A Thing of the Moment, a novel by Bruno Noble
The power ‘to see ourselves as others see us’ is described as a gift by Robert Burns, but it is easy also to imagine it a curse. Self-identity is an elusive and shifting construct; anyone with a penchant for introspection quickly finds themselves in a hall of mirrors that reflect different versions of who they are, depending on time and circumstance. Besides, are other people’s perceptions of ourselves any more accurate or any less imposed than our own? Perhaps it is better to be misunderstood from the inside than it is to be misperceived from the outside.
Bruno Noble’s ambitious novel A Thing of the Moment engages with the topic of identity formation via the lives of three young women whom we follow from childhood to adulthood. Sharon has no self-worth and little sense of self; Mie is confident of who she is and occasionally tramples on others’ sensibilities in her march through life; Isabella tends to see herself as if from the outside, her soul or psyche floating like a butterfly out of her body in times of extreme stress. These three separate women – fleeing, respectively, parental rejection, conformism and sexual abuse – eventually encounter one another in the city of London, where each of them eventually finds her own kind of resolution.
The first third of A Thing of the Moment is by far the most successful part of the novel. Its gradual unfolding of the children’s individual lives is compelling and increasingly disturbing, particularly Isabella’s bizarre and horrifying family. Injustice, unfairness, evil – seen through the eyes of a child, these things have an existential weight and determining force that can distort a life forever. Children are often vulnerable and resilient in equal measure, and we are left to wonder which is harder to overcome, specific acts of dreadful physical abuse or a lifetime’s subtle wounding at the hands of the very people who are supposed to care for us the most.
Recent scandals involving the falsification of examination results so as to exclude women from medical school have shown just how patriarchal, conformist and overbearing Japanese society can be. Mie’s ambitions are thwarted by expectations of women’s servanthood to their overworked salarymen, much of which is inflected with sexual licence on the one hand and repression on the other. Later reference to an unnamed film that can only be Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 masterpiece Onibaba, which shares with the novel its theme of the destructiveness of sexual desire, upending it so that the women are the predators, suggests how totalizing cultural norms go to the very heart of who we are.
The remainder of A Thing of the Moment, despite many good things, never quite lives up to its opening, for various reasons. While it is undoubtedly interesting to follow how Sharon, Mie and Isabella come to meet and interact, the alternations between their first-person accounts become choppy and confusing, so much so that, at times, the reader’s attention flags. More damaging, the women’s individual voices tend increasingly to sound the same, and their observations invariably have to be invested with significance or stand for something else, even when it is simply a matter of description:
We strode London’s pavements shoulder to shoulder, occasionally parting company momentarily … and converging again once an obstacle had been circumvented in a reflection of life’s encounters, separations and reunions.
This strikes one as awkward and unlikely, a curious blend of perfunctoriness and overprecision which leads one to suspect that long words are summoned solely to plug holes in meaning and cover over lapses of purpose: ‘I glanced at Sebastian now as he strode insouciant against the stream of ambulatory traffic’; ‘I took satisfaction in the successful collimation of the tree branches with the common’s tangential roads.’ One could argue that because much of this prose comes from Japanese Mie it is excusable (I am reminded of the German nurse in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp : ‘My name is Nurse Irma and I speak really excellent English’). However, Mie speaks quite normally in conversation, and many other similar passages are narrated by others.
Sometimes the writing appears to coast or be in a hurry. ‘The sun lit a canine tooth that rested on his lip,’ for instance, is one of several references to teeth that unintentionally suggests a dog’s incisor has come to rest at the corner of someone’s mouth, rather like a morsel of food. In addition, the male character Sebastian (he of the straying tooth), who links the three women, is comparatively sketchy: it is hard to understand who he is and why he is so damnably attractive.
Despite these problems, some of the more provocative aspects of A Thing of the Moment are nested in its second half. Materialism and idealism – in their philosophical meanings – rub shoulders amid the bloody apocalypse of Smithfield meat market. The body and the soul, the outer and the inner, the visible and the hidden, coalesce in sexual promiscuity and the performativity of dancers and clients alike in lapdancing clubs. A reader’s response to an attractive young woman’s claims to liberation, control and freedom discovered while dancing naked for the pleasure of men has to be cautious because, after all, that is what many men find it expedient to believe. To the novel’s credit, dancers do move on in their jobs and opinions, especially when human trafficking seeps into the profession.
The novel’s faltering steps ensure that it is the aqueous and menacingly real opening to A Thing of the Moment that lingers in the mind. John Fowles’ The Collector (1963) has taught us to beware collectors (especially collectors of butterflies), for their obsessions can mask unhealthy desires and dark secrets. It is our own lifetime’s work to flesh out our cookie-cutter selves. Nobody else has the right to do it for us.
Unbound | ISBN 9781912618361 (pbk) | ISBN 9781912618378 (eBook)