Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 676 pages; 2000.
Bryce Courtenay’s Jessica is a best-selling novel set in outback Australia during the early 20th Century. Jessica Bergman, the heroine of the book, is a tomboy who helps her father, a Danish immigrant, run the family farm. Meanwhile her elder sister, the beautiful but stuck-up Meg, dreams up plans, with the help of her mother, to wed the local rich boy.
When a brutal murder is carried out at a neighbouring farm, Jessica helps the killer survive a lynch mob hell bent on delivering their own form of justice. This one act of compassion has long-term implications for the rest of Jessica’s life – and she is banished from her family, from society and, later, from her child, who is born out of wedlock.
Ultimately this is a relatively sappy and sentimental tale, albeit it an easy to read one. (I was trapped on a long-haul flight with it, and read pretty much the entire 676 pages on the plane.)
While it’s supposedly based on a true story, Courtenay offers no explanations, no historical footnotes or afterword to back this up. I’m inclined to think that the murder and Jessica’s role in its aftermath may, in fact, be the only true elements and Courtenay has fabricated the rest, which is fine, because it’s fiction after all, but as a reader I would have liked to have known what was true and what was not.
That’s not my only problem with Jessica. I found much of it sloppily written and in need of some strong editing. It’s at least 300 pages too long.
The story meanders all over the place and goes off in unexpected tangents. I would not mind this if those tangents were neatly drawn together at the end, but they are not. Instead, it’s like the author made things up as he went along – and no one, not even the editor he so generously thanks in his acknowledgements, bothers to pull him up on this.
The author also has a tendency to hector his readers with his own views (on the treatment of women, on the treatment of aboriginals) instead of letting the reader make up their own mind. I found this patronising and it irritated the hell out of me.
Some of the scenes are overworked and repetitive, much of the dialogue is false (including the colloquialisms, which grated) and the characterisation poor and based on stereotypes (the mother, for instance, is like the Wicked Witch of the West and Jessica may as well have been Cindarella).
All of this is a shame, because there’s a brilliant novel in here just dying to get out. A second, possibly third, draft might have ironed out some of these problems.
All in all, Jessica has confirmed what I have thought all along: that this best-selling author is really not for me. Although, judging by his sales figures, I’m probably quite alone in this view. And if you look at the favourable reviews on Amazon.co.uk I suspect I’ll be lynched for giving this book just two stars. Oh well.