S.A. Jones’ Isabelle of the Moon and Stars is a powerful and affecting depiction of a young woman struggling with mental illness and emotional turmoil. A book like Isabelle might well be described as the underdog of Australian publishing: a character-focused literary novel published by a small press (in this case, University of Western Australia Publishing), it is the sort of book which often receives scant attention from reviewers and critics, and is generally unlikely to light bestseller lists on fire. All of which is a pity, because readers and reviewers who overlook Isabelle will miss out on a brave and beautifully-written investigation of depression, anxiety, desire, morality and intimacy, as the titular character seeks to love herself in order to connect with the world and the people who surround her.
Isabelle is juggling her fragile mental health, dull life in suburban Perth, and a pointless, Kafkaesque job in the public service. Though she has flashes of optimism and is buoyed by reserves of inner strength, her day-to-day life is marred by bouts of self-doubt and severe depression, which she refers to as the Black Place. In the aftermath of a horrifying breakup with the fiancé who destroyed her emotional strength, Isabelle has struggled to create and maintain trust and connections with others. But as she skirts rock bottom, occasional glimpses of warmth and compassion emerge in unlikely places. Small graces and moments of human connection – a burgeoning friendship with her elderly neighbour; the fierce loyalty of a small child’s affection; her charged but steadfastly platonic relationship with her best friend, Evan – keep Isabelle afloat as she feels her way back towards the brightness of positive human relationships. Fit, gorgeous, and charming, Evan would be the model of a perfect romantic comedy lead – were it not for the baggage he brings to their friendship-without-benefits in the form of a vow of celibacy. His unavailability is typical of the numerous potential sources of happiness in Isabelle’s life, all of which remain maddeningly just out of reach.
Jones is refreshingly sympathetic yet unflinching in her examination of the fault lines of desire, insecurity and weakness which lead Isabelle towards a grim affair with her married boss, Jack. Her unromantic but realistic motivation to become ‘The Other Woman’ is revealed, not as love or passion, but rather a desperate desire to exert some form of power and autonomy when all other avenues have been wrested from her. A curious mingling of disgust and attraction demarcate Isabelle’s abortive sexual encounter with Jack: she is using him, not in his own right, but as a means of exercising a still-limited form of control. These are ugly and shameful impulses, and it is a rare and brave authorial act to apply them to a supposedly sympathetic protagonist. Thankfully, Jones shirks the strictures of the Madonna/whore dichotomy, imbuing Isabelle with great complexity and allowing her to breathe, panic, be seduced and fuck up, just as any flawed, but real, person might.
At her lowest point, Isabelle finds refuge in fantasy, and the city of Prague is the site of her recurrent daydreams. She escapes there psychologically, as a safe space when the Black Place looms, and also literally, when an unfathomable encounter in her personal life causes her to flee the flat, sun-bleached streets of Perth for the towering gothic cityscape on the far side of the world. The old city’s snow-capped towers and haunting beauty are a source of respite for Isabelle in the midst of her tumultuous personal life. With her own hidden depths and dark history, Isabelle feels a kinship with Prague’s history of violent political upheaval and societal unrest and repression, and the sorrow of its people – a personal connection that derives from the ‘conflation of her personal sorrows with the ugliness of the twentieth century’.
If Isabelle’s limited, seemingly deliberately obtuse perspective can feel a little claustrophobic sometimes, this is only as a reflection of her complex psyche, and the dance of repression and vulnerability which allows her to process her past and present hurts. At the book’s beginning, Isabelle’s world is small and rendered in greyscale. She has necessarily shrunken it down to a manageable size, where surprises and uncertainties are minimised. As she becomes more emotionally adaptable and mentally receptive, the world of the novel is fleshed out and suffused with colour. Readers must take a difficult and not always pleasant journey alongside Isabelle, but engaging with and overcoming the darkness brings its own particular reward, one which is all the more satisfying for being hard-won.