Book review: The Girl on the Page by John Purcell

Monday, October 22, 2018 Permalink

I had no idea what to expect going into this book. I’d seen some reviews around but most really only touched on the fact that John Purcell (who’s well-known and heavily involved in the book / publishing industry here in Australia) had offered us an insider’s view into that world. Almost all reviews I’d seen though, were overwhelmingly positive.

As someone who tends to spurn Literary fiction (with a capital L) because I don’t usually understand what the f*ck I’m reading, I was intrigued about this book which kinda centres around the perception there are two extremes to publishing…. the sell-out prolific commercial fiction author who makes lots of money vs the Literary fiction author, who’s somewhat esoteric and learned, who wins literary prizes but makes no money.

Book review: The Girl on the Page by John PurcellThe Girl On The Page
by John Purcell
Published by 4th Estate - AU
on September 24th 2018
Source: NetGalley
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 1460756975, 9781460756973
Pages: 400

Amy Winston is a hard-drinking, bed-hopping, hot-shot young book editor on a downward spiral. Having made her name and fortune by turning an average thriller writer into a Lee Child, Amy is given the unenviable task of steering literary great Helen Owen back to publication.

When Amy knocks on the door of their beautiful townhouse in north west London, Helen and her husband, the novelist Malcolm Taylor, are conducting a silent war of attrition. The townhouse was paid for with the enormous seven figure advance Helen was given for the novel she wrote to end fifty years of making ends meets on critical acclaim alone. The novel Malcolm thinks unworthy of her. The novel Helen has yet to deliver. The novel Amy has come to collect.

Amy has never faced a challenge like this one. Helen and Malcolm are brilliant, complicated writers who unsettle Amy into asking questions of herself - questions about what she values, her principles, whether she has integrity, whether she is authentic. Before she knows it, answering these questions becomes a matter of life or death.

The story unfolds predominantly from Helen and Amy’s points of view. Though Malcolm (and their son Dennis, briefly) host we readers as well. Helen’s story is told in third person, whereas Amy’s is told in first person so we’re very much in her head, which probably makes her more likeable than might otherwise be.

She’s a bit of a bitch quite frankly… not particularly nice to anyone and kinda prides herself on her heavy drinking and sleeping-around lifestyle. She also sees herself as a bit of a genius though, having created a popular series of books with an author using a fairly formulaic approach – which she happily boasts of.

I don’t tend to think of myself as much of a prude but I was somewhat agog at Amy’s sexual exploits. Purcell only relays them in a superficial (but explicit) way, but I would have liked to delve deeper. I mean, it doesn’t take a psychologist to know she’s using sex for more than sexual pleasure but some of her (Purcell’s) thoughts and descriptions about sex (and its power / destruction) are interesting and I would have liked to see them explored more.

Not a word. Not a kiss. Ruined me. Ruined….

He was killing me. He knew what he was doing… p 53

Why wouldn’t I want him to destroy me whenever he wanted to. p 173

Because we’re ‘in’ Amy’s head we know that she’s fighting her own battle between good and evil. Well… between knowing that she’s a bit of a fuck-up (and very occasionally thinking she needs to make some changes) and realising she’s whip-smart and cynically / pragmatically settled for the life she has. She’s passionate about books – that’s for sure – but there’s also a sense that she’s shed something of her deeper love of words and the craft of writing when she opted for the path she’s taken.

I sat in silence a long time. I just couldn’t get a hold of the idea. Julia was asking me to turn Helen Owen into Jojo Moyes. It didn’t seem possible. Jojo was a friend of Liam’s. I had met her a couple of times and had read and enjoyed all of her books. She was a good writer. A clever woman. Very friendly and likeable. But she would never win the Booker. Helen Owen was a writer whose name always came up when people were betting on possible Nobel laureates. The fucking Nobel. What if Helen Owen was really writing some brilliant and I shaped it into a Richard and Judy pick? If sin still existed in publishing that would be one. p 42

And we know (cos she tells us) that the august Helen and bombastic Malcolm, along with their passion for big L literature and authenticity (at all costs), hold a mirror up to Amy confronting her with the choices she’s made.

When we meet them the 50+ year long bond between literary darlings is kinda broken. They’re in their late 70s and Helen has only fairly recently ‘sold out’ as Malcolm (and her former editor) put it, taking a large advance to produce something more commercially palatable. It’s a relief for Helen who’s hated the lack of financial stability, but Malcolm pines for their past life and their shared office with its mismatched desks.

He felt as the chair and books did, completely out of place in this new house. He too was rubbed around the edges and stained. This house was too beautiful, too clean, too expansive. And white. So white. He was a stain here. A living stain. p 50

Initially there’s a polite but simmering antipathy between the pair. They talk. They have their usual literary discussions, but things have changed. They both know it. I’m not sure the disintegrating relationship was explained to the extent I would have liked. Although perhaps it’s been happening for a long time, as (at one point) Helen describes her commitment to her work and Malcolm as ‘total’ (to the detriment of their son and other possible friendships).

Her marriage was a wall blocking intimacy with others. p 113

Malcolm’s behaviour becomes erratic. Everyone around him suspects there’s something medically wrong, but… perhaps not.

His disdain towards his Man Booker nomination is intriguing. His book garnered little attention. It was hated by his agent and publisher, but they published it nonetheless. Even Malcolm describes it as “a cancer of a book that should be excised from the body of literature before it spreads.” p 291

I didn’t fully understand why he wrote it. Was it a vanity project? What was the source of his regret? He seemingly knew it was cynical and dark but pushed it into the hands of his agent et al nonetheless. And he’s harbouring even more antipathy toward his current work which he describes as darker than his last.

Darker than anything I’ve written. Darker than I thought possible. I can’t shake it, either. It sits upon me like a blanket wherever I am, blocking all light. There’s no hope. No redemption. Nothing. p 96

I must admit I spent much of this novel feeling angry at Malcolm – because of his lofty ideals, but more specifically his treatment of his wife. I assumed or hoped his rude disdain or pomposity was a result of an illness rather than an indication he’d always pretty much been a bastard and his wife – while she met his expectations – was one of few people he loved and respected.

Purcell writes well, cleverly and eloquently.

Character-wise there were little nuances that irked me – an occasional inconsistency or incongruity in the relationship between Helen and Malcolm as well as the way in which Amy viewed them both (and they her).

I must admit I found some of the sex scenes a bit confronting and just kinda crass in parts. I know it was meant to give us some insight into Amy but they seemed incongruous with the rest of the book and I probably could have done with a little less detail.

Having said that I recognise there’s meant to be an extremity / dichotomy between Helen and Malcolm’s vs Amy’s lifestyles but there are also a couple of dire moments in the latter part of the book – one quite violent and seemed shockingly stark against everything else. (And too quickly recovered from, perhaps?)

What I really loved about this book however was its take on literature, publishing, commercial success, genre snobbery and the book industry in general.

Great writing is rare. With so little time on this planet, shouldn’t we spend at least some of that time getting acquainted with the writers most often acknowledged as exceptional?

Every flash of brilliance in these current years is but a flash. Almost an accident rather than a consistent effort. A jazz flourish rather than a symphony. And we honour these flashes. There is no growth to greatness, just bursts of inspiration that fall into place and never built upon. p 74

As a contemplatory writer I really liked the thoughts on writing and the industry. Everything from the appointment of non-literary lovers into senior positions in publishing houses (‘corporate interlopers’), to the bottom line in publishing to awards and prize giving. I wondered (a few times) if Purcell was using the book to voice some of his own opinions and interestingly I very much agreed with some (and know the sentiment around the recognition of female writers is probably a controversial one).

I realise this is a really long review. I think it’s an indication I obviously very much enjoyed this book, but was equally frustrated by a couple of elements and characters. The latter obviously are meant to be irksome. Perhaps the other elements are to be debated as well. It would – for that reason – be an excellent bookclub book.

The Girl on the Page by John Purcell was published in Australia by Harper Collins and is now available.

I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 


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