Thaw is the story of Ruth, a thirty-two year old microbiologist who has given herself three months in which she has to decide whether she will live or die. She begins a daily journal as a way of tracking her thoughts during this countdown, and she says that, should she choose to kill herself, the diary will act as an extended suicide note. It’s bleak subject matter, and it gets darker – Ruth gradually reveals details about her mother’s illness and death, her rocky relationship with her father, an imaginary affair with a colleague about whom she fantasises for seven years, and her ongoing bouts of self-harming. Amongst the misery, though, are the germs of something brighter – with nothing to lose, and limited time available, Ruth plunges into new activities – a photography class, getting her portrait painted, helping an old friend out of a bad relationship. As her life fills up with people and aspirations, the tension rises – will she choose to leave it all behind?
Robyn paints a bleak and believable version of modern single life. Ruth has lived alone since university, she doesn’t know what other people eat for breakfast, how to dress for a party, how to fill her weekends. She thinks she’s too old to learn to apply make-up or to take up photography. Her voice, in her diaries, is self-deprecating and scathing; she is sure that this record of her days will prove to any reader that she deserves to die, and she is frustrated that she can’t manage to reveal the worst of herself on paper. When she sits for Red, the portrait painter, his work reveals the inner sadness that she has tried to pour out in the journal, and she is shocked at how he has penetrated her cheerful public persona. Despite the positive developments in her life – the burgeoning relationships with Red, her estranged aunt, and a girl from her photography class – Robyn refuses to supply us with easy solutions. Ruth confronts her father about his treatment of her after her mother died, but it doesn’t make their dealings with one another any easier; she tells Red about her self-harming, but nevertheless continues to do it. It’s a realistic depiction of depression and self-imposed isolation. Although her three-month deadline enables Ruth to take risks and make choices that she wouldn’t have made before, the novel doesn’t chart a slow progression towards stability and improvement. The reader is never sure what her final decision will be – life or death?
There’s a real risk of predictability in a novel like this. Meeting new friends or taking on new hobbies at a time of crisis, discovering other people also have emotional problems – it’s an easy way to make the character come to fresh realisations and decide that life is, in fact, worth living. Robyn manages to sidestep this danger – Ruth is a very self-aware character; she rereads her journal, corrects herself, points out the possible cliche of her existence before the reader comes to the same conclusion. She writes about her sex-life, and then worries about somebody else reading the journal. She is conscious of having an audience, and knows that, in the context of Robyn’s fictional world, the reader will already know the outcome of her story. There’s an awareness to the text, then, that prevents it from descending into the cliched territories of a fictional misery-memoir or a simple tale of redemption. Ruth treats her own life with a detached observance and bitter sense of humour that rises above the will-she-won’t-she plot, and Robyn resists giving her any great epiphanies (except, possibly, at the very end).
The writing here is plain and accessible, with some poetic forays – the language of a microbiologist with an interest in art. Towards the end, Ruth writes, ‘The sky seemed a little bluer than usual. If I believed in God I’d say that he added a few extra drops of colour with a giant pipette.’ Robyn describes Red’s paintings and Ruth’s favourite photographs with delicacy and precision. The diary-structure of the novel makes it a quick read – each chapter is less than three pages. The characterisation is perhaps the novel’s greatest flaw. Although Ruth and her father are rendered with deep sympathy and complexity – the father’s grief over the death of his wife, and his way of dealing with it, is incredibly poignant – the other characters are at times rather flat, acting as sounding boards for Ruth’s emotional state or case-studies of ‘other issues’ rather than fully rounded people in their own right. Mary, a troubled girl in Ruth’s workplace, never came fully alive for me, and Red, at times, plays the role of saviour a little too easily.
Any Cop?: This isn’t the sort of book I usually read; it’s a little less literary than my normal fare, and I don’t think it’ll appeal to a male audience. On the other hand, it’s an engaging text with a strong and memorable female narrator, and it deals with emotional issues that will resonate with a huge swathe of the population. Fiona Robyn’s done a fine job here, and I think she should garner plenty of fans with this one.