Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Stephanie Bishop is a well-known writer according to the critiques I’ve read. The critics, to a woman, are fulsome in their praise, yet when I review her latest book The Anniversary, I’m thrown into doubt. She begins by telling us that novelist JB Blackwood has taken a holiday with her husband Patrick. Patrick is well known around universities as a popular lecturer. He is considerably older than his charges, is divorced from his wife, and is known to persuade his students to have affairs with him.
He meets his current wife when, dressed as usual in a leather jacket and surrounded by an adoring crowd, he shares the use of his umbrella and taxi to protect against the pouring rain. He takes her to his flat and their affair begins at that point. Since, at the time of writing, they have been married for fourteen years and the real story begins, there must have been some magic in the relationship.
Their current holiday has been organised to meet a dual need. Both parties to the marriage have been exposed to a heinously heavy workload, and this is a reward for their hard work. Despite Patrick’s resistance to the effort involved in travel, his wife is hoping they can spend some quality time together. Of recent months they have not been comfortable with one another. The second reason for the trip is that she has won an important prize that is to be presented in New York. Unfortunately, Patrick appears to have fallen overboard and is lost at sea.
Until now the emphasis has been with the narrative. The remaining section of Book 1 appears to be on the identification of the body and its effect on the widow. The reader is conscious of the presence of a capable writer, of an artiste who can maintain one’s interest in the story being told – until one reaches the description on page 76. This passage is so different, so outstanding in its description one begins to wonder if it belongs. It reads in part:
So I followed him to London. First impressions: damp air excessive greenery, thin brown houses crowded together, spotted dogs, and golden foxy dogs and fat limping dogs on leather leashes. The lumpy grey sky and the rain then the not rain then the rain again, then the soon-to-be-rain but not quite, the any-minute-now rain…
a passage that lasts for several lines more before stopping and returning to its pedestrian past… but not quite.
When I look back, I see this as the beginning of one of the richest periods of my life; a phase in which my life seemed at last my own; my own to have, to live, to feel. My body felt continually light and open. My mind clear. Every sensation, every impression lodged itself, sank in and opened out as a feeling in the heart, as a thought, as a rush of energy (77-78).
The writing settles then until perhaps page 106 but, in any case, less stable than it was.
Just as the book began, focused on the sex act, so it continues, not by any means inappropriately. Page 303 considers a woman now beginning to feel the lack of perceptions her younger lover no longer sees, or worse, reverts to a diagram to explain. Bishop notices human frailties, and expertly comments on intimate relationships. She has much to say on the subject of human affairs. One finds oneself wondering if the much older Patrick might have been embarrassed by all the candour.
I could admire the book as a piece of art but never warm to it.
By Stephanie Bishop
$32.99; 430 pp