Book review: The Girl on the Page by John Purcell

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Publishers Australia)

There are certain idealistic views of the world that we hold dear.

Grandmothers are always sentimental knitters. Kittens will purr and not bite you. And writers, noble, self-sacrificing writers, are so addicted to the power of literary creation that they are content to sit in their lofty garrets spinning words with no thought of recompense or reward.

It’s a wonderfully romantic image but it presupposes, as do so many of our fairytale truths, that reality has somehow skipped past this person, neutering their humanity, leaving only a noble, creatively-pure shell behind.

Any idea that this is in fact the actual state of things is blown clear to tomorrow and beyond by John Purcell’s powerfully-grounded novel, The Girl on the Page, which takes a refreshingly-honest look at the world of writing and more particularly publishing, where like with so many creative undertakings, mammon meets art and no one is left really liking the result.

“My confidence in being able to turn Helen to more commercial fiction had plummeted with the lift. 
Now I was sitting on a lounge in the lobby of the building, staring at my phone.
I called Julia.
‘They gave Helen Owen a million fucking pounds?!’
There was silence at the other end.” (P. 47)

In the world of publishing it seems you have those who are committed to high literary art – in this case married couple Malcolm Taylor and Helen Owen who toiled away for 50 years in a small flat in Brixton, London, before Helen accepted a huge advance to write a more commercial novel than she had hitherto attempted.

Or you are committed solely to the business of entertaining people, crafting books that will sell and sell obscenely well, art be damned, a belief held dear by editor and writer Amy Winston who never met a commercially-oriented book she couldn’t turn into checkout gold.

Of course, it’s never quite that clearcut with high and low art, themselves rather rubbery terms, mixing freely; but for Malcolm, who is in contention for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction with a novel he claims to hate, while for Helen and Amy, the lines are, initially at least, firmly and irretrievably drawn and nothing can be done to bring them together.

Well, that is until life intervenes and all kinds of assumptions are tossed into the mixmaster of real world compromise and no one emerges really knowing which end is up.

John Purcell (image courtesy official John Purcell Twitter account)

It’s a wholly-fascinating topic to explore and Purcell, a publishing industry insider who knows well of what he writes, doesn’t hold back, allowing the characters to damn themselves with their own fallibly-human inconsistencies, their once-staunchly-held positions fraying at the edges, and far more, by book’s end.

And yet for all the hypocrisy on display, these are not un-self-aware people, each of them acutely aware, in the midst of the comforting stories they spin themselves, that they stand across chasms of compromise, with Helen in particular, wrestling with what it means to hold dear to the purity of her literary take on the written word for 50 years only to give it up at 77 to finally get the material gain afforded other writers.

She is desperately aware of what she has given up, and her self-doubt and almost self-loathing, is joined by Malcolm’s disgust at her lack of “integrity”, the product of a belief system so resolute and unyielding, so committed to the purity of the writerly ideal, that he is prepared to distance himself to an almost marriage-destroying degree to hold fast to it.

Into this bastion of fiercely fought for literary ideals walks Amy, a high-functioning alcoholic and sex addict who is devastatingly beautiful and damn good at what she does to the point where she wealthy beyond her need for more money and who, at first, pushes hard up against the impenetrable wall erected by Malcolm while challenging a wavering Helen, who can’t afford to give up the house her advance has brought her and Malcolm but hates what it has cost her.

Or, at least, what she imagines it has cost her.

“She [Helen] didn’t like thinking about an office full of people busily making plans concerning that book. She didn’t want to be shown a range of draft covers, she didn’t want to agree on a title, she didn’t want to read through the copy edits, she didn’t want to have her photo taken for the publicity department. Or want to be paraded around the country, visiting bookshop after bookshop, library after library, festival after festival. She didn’t want to meet her new readers. She didn’t want anyone to say anything pleasant about the book.” (P. 279)

The Girl on the Page is in many ways quite a dark novel, full of characters who want the very best for their art and their lives, and yet who have become so lost in the actual lives they have led that they don’t even know which way is up anymore.

Liam Smith, with whom Amy writes the series of very commercial Jack Cade novels, is a man so morally and creatively stuck that when he decides he want to write a more literary novel, in the very opposite direction of Helen Owen’s conflicted and reluctant trajectory, he finds himself unable to do so, or at least unsure of what to do.

In the murky world of utilitarian relationships and creative conundrums that mark Purcell’s sagely-cynical view of the publishing world, there is still however a redemptive streak of sorts.

Not that anyone emerges Cinderella-like from the whole imbroglio, epiphanies held tight in hand, save for Amy who finds her long-held positions about high and low art, and her own life, challenged at every turn, but there is a sense of people coming to realise that the places they have staked out for themselves may not be quite so virtuous nor so advantageous to their lives as they might have imagined.

With writing that is strong and purposeful, and yet intimately intense too, that takes its time to examine not simply how these people conduct their compromised (read: all too human, far removed from the comforting ideals we all like to pretend are real) lives but why, The Girl on the Page is itself that rare beast over which everyone agonises in the book – an engaging literary novel that manages to be accessibly commercial and down to earth, putting paid to the ideas, by its own highly-readable and beautifully-written existence, that you can’t have both and will be damned to literary hell if you do.

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