Saturday, June 10, 2017

Review: Nine Island by Jane Alison

When do you give up on romantic love? Jane Alison's novel Nine Island has a main character contemplating just this question as she watches life go by from her glass fronted high rise condo on the Venetian Islands on Miami Beach.

J. is translating, and sometimes changing, Ovid's tales into English. She's also a recently divorced, middle aged woman who lives with her aging, incontinent cat and has just returned to her condo after a wasted month trying to make a go of it with an old boyfriend, Sir Gold. As she works through Ovid's take on mythological stories of love and lust, she contemplates whether it's time for her to give up on romantic love. While pondering this and what it would mean for her life, she swims in the building's pool, watches her neighbors, takes care of her elderly mother, and tries to help a wounded duck. These things might feel disparate but they form the structure of her life and they come to clearly define her despite their initially perceived smallness. J. feels stranded and alone in her life but still harbors a wildness in her just like the duck she wants to rescue, a wildness that shows itself in her imaginings and her translations.

This literary novel is very much character driven and introspective. Told entirely in first person with J. narrating her own story, the story flows over the reader, with a dreamlike lushness to the writing but also a fevered restlessness underpinning the languid pace of the story.  Alison manages to pull off this seeming contradiction beautifully.  The novel is incredibly descriptive and the landscape, the shabby building, and the injured duck become metaphors for the loneliness of aging without connection or relationship. The novel is composed of brief chapters that tell of past and present and fluctuate in tone dependent on what part of the story they are recounting. Alison does an amazing job showing the yearning and vulnerability of an intelligent, solitary woman of a certain age. There is a taut sexuality to J.'s life, and emotional connection where it is least expected. This is a smart and accomplished novel, one that very much requires an agile and educated reader to appreciate it.

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