‘A Pure Clear Light’ by Madeleine St John

A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 224 pages; 2009.

The late Australian writer Madeleine St John (1941-2006) first came to my attention when I read her debut novel —a rather delicious black comedy called The Women in Black — several years ago.

A Pure Clear Light, which was first published in 1996, was her second novel. This one is set in London — Hammersmith and Notting Hill, to be precise — where the author, herself, resided, having emigrated to the UK in 1966 (she was a contemporary of Bruce Beresford, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes — how’s that for a star-studded line up?) It could be best described as a domestic comedy, but its humour is tempered by pathos and an exploration of all the complications and chaos of modern life, which makes for a fiercely intelligent read.

Middle-class London life in the 1990s

Set over the course of around six months, it focuses on Simon and Flora Beaufort, a middle-class couple with three children — Janey, 13, Nell, nine, and Thomas, five. Their lives are comfortable but hectic — David, who directs and writes TV plays, is on the constant look-out for the next big thing, and Flora is busy running her own business with a friend importing and selling third-world textiles.

Right from the very start, we find out that Simon is having an affair with an accountant called Gillian Selkirk and they’ve been spotted having a romantic meal in a French brasserie by one of Flora’s friends. The story then rewinds to show how the affair began — and how Simon carries on his subterfuge right under his wife’s nose without her ever realising.

On the face of it — and indeed going by the blurb alone — you would think this was a story about a marriage falling apart through Simon’s betrayal, but it’s much more than that. The over-riding theme is the transitory nature of life and the need to “live in the moment”. This is brought home to Simon very early on when he wanders the streets of his neighbourhood while Flora is away on holiday with the children:

You could hardly live in Hammersmith without being all but overwhelmed with the realisation of life’s essential transience; the place was a monument to transience; and if there was a paradox, so much the better. Simon, in his family’s absence, had taken to walking in the long summer evenings: one walked for a few miles, and then one came to a pub; one had a few pints and walked home again, and went to bed. One walked down impossible blighted streets, past lovely, blighted houses, the motorway roaring overhead, the river coming into view, every transient item supporting a stream of transient life: their only absolute reality was their passing.

Flora, too, is ever aware of the passing of time and looks for solace in religion and spiritual growth. A lapsed Catholic — Simon, a non-believer, talked her out of it when they had first got together — she begins attending the Anglian church even though “she didn’t sufficiently believe in God”. She’s not quite sure what she’s looking for, only that something is missing.

Simon, too, thinks something is missing but can never put his finger on it. When Thomas takes up ballet and dances for him, he feels momentarily delighted:

‘That’s the stuff,’ said Simon. And he felt as happy as a person can ever be. Why isn’t this enough? he wondered. Why do we always want something more? How can this be?

A quick, light read 

If I’m making the book sound heavy, I don’t mean to, because there’s a lightness of touch — dare I say a transience to the writing? — which makes it a quick and light read. The chapters are exceedingly short — there’s 81 of them, and some are only two or three pages long — and most of the story is told through dialogue, which is short and snappy and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

For instance, there’s a terrific (or should that be ‘triffic’? see below) set piece at the opening of an art exhibition that takes the mickey out of Australians in London, which had me guffawing over my Kindle. It relies very much on stereotypes, so it’s not really in keeping with the rest of the book, and because the author is Australian herself I think she gets away with it, but anyone else and I’d be feeling slightly insulted!

‘Gidday,’ said the antipodean amiably, ‘likewise.’
‘Well –’ said Lydia, ‘they’ve certainly got a crowd in tonight. Everyone’s here.’
‘Yeah, it’s beaut!’
‘I’m afraid I haven’t had a chance yet to see the paintings properly – so many people in the way.’
‘No worries; they’ll be up for two more weeks.’
‘Yes, I must come back during the day.’
‘You do that.’
‘Yes. Anyway, I do hope you’re enjoying London – but then I dare say you’ve been here before.’
‘Oh yeah, I have; it’s bonzer.’
‘Oh good.’
‘Yeah, I’ve been havin’ a beaut time.’
‘Oh, beaut. Oh, sorry – I mean –’
‘No worries!’
‘Oh good. Anyway – where are you staying exactly?’
‘Oh, I’ve got a loan of a triffic flat in Notting Hill.’
‘Oh yes, Notting Hill.’
‘Yeah that’s right – beaut place.’
‘So you know lots of people here, do you?’
‘Oh, well, I know a few. I’ve met some more here. They’re bonzer people.’
‘Oh, are they?’
‘Yeah, right; triffic!’

The story is also populated by a vast cast of the Beaufort’s friends and colleagues, many of whom only have brief appearances in the novel, but this helps create the very real feeling that both Simon and Flora lead chaotic, always busy lives.

A Pure Clear Light feels like something Muriel Spark might have cooked up with Nina Bawden or Penelope Fitzgerald. It’s a fast-paced read, with a healthy dose of flippancy and humour to balance out the deeper themes — love, marriage, family, religion and the temporary nature of life itself.

This is my second book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my second for #AWW2016.

The author is widely published in the UK, but US and Canadian readers may have to search online for secondhand copies.

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17 thoughts on “‘A Pure Clear Light’ by Madeleine St John

    • Yes, I’m keen to read the rest of her back catalogue now… Mind you, she’s only got four novels to her name. I think she came to writing quite late in life… there’s hope for me yet!

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  1. I’ve read three by Madeleine St John, and also the biography by Helen Trinca… which put me off St John a bit. She was a lonely and bitter woman, self-destructive in all her relationships and haunted by her mother’s suicide for which she never forgave her father. In her novels her wit can be cruel, which is why I think The Women in Black was the best of them.
    MSJ was very keen to be perceived as posh British although she was very hard up indeed, and in A Stairway to Paradise she also gave one of her female characters an execrable Australian accent that made her sound like a Cockney. Mocking Australians was her way of distancing herself from her Australian origins IMO, but by 1996 she was well out of touch with how Australia had changed since the 1960s. Interestingly, her mother also took on a pseudo identity: she was Romanian but in Australia she passed herself off as French because, well, who knows? maybe she thought a French identity was more sophisticated? (See http://anzlitlovers.com/2013/05/29/madeleine-a-life-of-madeleine-st-john-by-helen-trinca/)

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    • Ah, that’s all very interesting, Lisa. I don’t really know anything about her background — she sounds rather bitter and sad, actually, and is one reason why sometimes it’s better off not knowing what an author is like in real life! For a long time I railed against attending literary events for just that reason!

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      • Yes, I was sorry I’d read the bio, even though literary bios are a favourite type of book. (I’m reading one about Elizabeth Jolley at the moment… *she* was a most interesting woman!

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  2. I have this in my TBR and hope to read it one day. Like Lisa I’ve read the biography. I see her as a bit similar to Jill Ker Conway in bitterness towards parents and towards Australia, without seeing that Australia had changed. That said, she did have a rather sad life, even if some of it was self-inflicted by making not the best decisions.Oh, and I think she led a very chaotic life, so she can probably write that well!

    I’m still hoping someone will make Women in black as a movie. It was optioned years ago.

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  3. So glad to see you writing about this book here. It’s the only one of Madeleine St John’s that I’ve yet read, but I thought it brilliant. As you say, a lightness of touch, and yet some profound issues. Thought-provoking. I didn’t know there was a biography so thanks for that, Lisa.

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    • Thanks, Christine. Nice to hear that you thought this one a brilliant read. I love the way she captures the busy and chaotic lives of the people in this story, as well as their moods and emotions without actually spelling everything out for the reader. I do hope to read more of her work soon.

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      • Thanks, Kim. I also very much admired the way the story is mostly told in dialogue, as you mention. (I envy her this gift; my own book, Inscription—shameless plug!—is very short on dialogue; partly because one strand of the book is historical, and dialogue in historical novels is dangerous, but also because I find it hard!) And yes, in St John’s book, so little is spelled out; it makes you think.

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  4. Pingback: 35 books by women: completing the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge | Reading Matters

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