Book review: Sad Janet by Lucie Britsch

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

Happiness!

It’s what we all crave, what we need, what we must have in all its technicolour, eye-poppingly perfect, sadness-banishing glory, right?

Well, yes, in a sense – I mean who doesn’t want to be happy?

But in Lucie Britsch’s brilliant novel, Sad Janet, it becomes patently clear that happiness, like so many other good and well-intentioned things that have the virtue beaten out of them by orthodoxy-enforcing human beings of good intention but recklessly insensitive enforcement, can become a noose through which our necks can become perilously entwined.

That’s very much the case with Janet, a worker at a dog shelter out in the woods with canine zealot Debs, who owns and runs the place which gives homes to many lost and unloved dogs, and relentlessly perky Melissa, who finds the constant entreaty to be “Happy! Happy! Happy!” to be an onerous burden and not a joyously liberating ideal.

That’s partly because her family are so insistent about everyone needing to be happy, Janet in particular who is the non-conformist black sheep of the family, that they have become a broken record to which Janet has little to no inclination to listen.

But it is also because, in a world that has given its hearts, souls and minds to Big Pharma and its promise of drug-infused bliss, they are all doped up to the eyeballs with all manner of emotion-stabilising, mood-enhancing, calming medications.

“The fact that Christmas such a big deal tells me that everyone knows life is shitty, and that every so often we really need it not to be—say, a few weeks at the end of the year. It’s a necessary release, the world’s yearly happy ending.” P. 74)

It’s an epidemic of not feeling for which Janet’s mother is the leader cheerleader and proselitiser and for which Janet, who has long made her peace with being habitually malcontented and, well, sad, has little to no patience.

She is always inclined to tell it like it is, and has never been comfortable with humanity’s herd-like willingness to go along with the rigidly upheld orthodoxy of the day.

For a free thinking species, humanity has a lamentable propensity for ditching critical thought and free will in favour of unthinkingly join the beige queue to societal acceptance.

A queue, which it cannot be emphasised strongly enough, Janet has absolutely no desire to join in any way, shape or form.

Is she aware her life may not be as tickety-boo as it could be? Yes, she is. Do you get the feeling she wouldn’t mind a little more happiness of some kind? Undoubtedly, who wouldn’t?

But if it means selling out who she is? No, thank you, no, just don’t — OK?

That is, until, worn down by a succession of calls from her mother, with whom she has a fraught relationship, entreaties from her doctor, who is being paid bigtime by Big Pharma to hawk their products, and ads from the drug companies themselves, she decides to join a trial of new wonder drug which is supposed to help people cope with the rigours of the festive season.

The only reason she agrees to do this is because her mother, a Christmas junkie par excellence, who has turned the joys of the season into a grindingly exhausting race to the festive finish line where everything MUST be celebrated and with a riotously large grin on your eggnog-stained face, has always made a big thing of the myriad attractions of December and Janet always feels, despite her loud rejection of the falsity of all the enforced celebrating, that she let her down somehow.

But Sad Janet has a great deal of fun with what appears to be the titular protagonist’s capitulation, and while you might expect the events of the novel to go in one direction, Britsch takes deliciously and hilariously, and soberingly, in a whole other direction, the whole nature of which is best left to the reading.

Suffice to say that Janet, who has never meant a rule she hasn’t want to defy or subvert, or preferably both, from the way in which you relate to your boyfriend to the jobs you should hold and the type of life you should lead, doesn’t play along quite as she should.

As she does, so, in ways that surprise, thrill and delight you if you have even a sliver of an orthodoxy-defying bone in your body, you are treated to a clever cavalcade of witticisms and comedic asides, all of which contain some appealingly barbed and wholly true observations about the absurdities of modern life and the gaping illogicalities of society and its ceaseless quest for some kind of herd-gathering uniformity.

“We all ate a lot and drank a lot and talked a lot about nothing that mattered. We all liked eating food. Whoever came up with the idea of spacing food out throughout the day [Christmas Day] to keep us all distracted from ourselves? Say what you want about Jesus or Santa; that guy was the real hero.” (PP. 228-229)

In short, Sad Janet is that insistent voice deep down in your soul given brilliantly insightful and go f**k yourself voice, the one you wish you could let out, and maybe do sometimes in ways that won’t rock the boat too much, but which never gets free, unadulterated reign.

The thing is that in unskilled hands, Janet could simply have been a whining, malcontented pain in the neck, someone staring down what they don’t like, and telling you at volume, why they don’t like it, but with no real new way forward if you decide you have had enough of blindingly and unquestioningly toeing the line.

But with Britsch at the helm, Janet is incredibly likeable and real, a woman who is authentic as they come, an everywoman who doesn’t want to be an everywoman, but who puts into words what the rest of us wannabe free souls desperately wish we could articulate.

The fact too that you know deep down Janet wants to be sort of, kind of, maybe happy, but very much on her own, unmedicated terms, gives her character and Sad Janet as an engaging novel that you will like more and more as you get into it, the kind of offbeat appeal that makes her the kind of protagonist with whom you identify and want to spend time with because she’s so delightfully, openly, goddamn perfectly authentic.

She is that go your own way breathe of fresh air, complete with uncertainties, profanity and unexpected vulnerability, that you never knew you wanted to breathe in, and she makes Sad Janet, which pulses with a heady mix of emotional resonance and barbed, pithy good humour, one of those novels that says a lot and says with a sense of fun and truthfulness such that you will find yourself heartily glad, maybe even happy, you ventured into its life-changingly honest space.

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