Book review: The Sparkle Pages by Meg Bignell

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Susannah Parks, protagonist of The Sparkle Pages by Meg Bignell, is in a funk.

A major, major four kids-haven’t had sex in months-husband seems to barely notice her funk.

The kind we all fall into at some point or another (or perhaps multiple times even) when the bright shiny youthful promise of life has given way to a far less lustrous sheen.

On paper, and this is literally so since Susannah, or Zannah as her husband calls her with an affection she’s lost sight of, is commiting all her thoughts to a paper journal for one year in an attempt to examine where the vivacity has gone and whether it can be revived, she has everything anyone could ask for.

A loving, though work-distracted husband. Four great though flawed kids. A cosy home. A best friend named Ria, a talented musician in London who is fun, unattached and exuberantly outgoing. Caring parents. And prodigious, though currently unused for reasons not initially disclosed, talent as a violist.

That’s a lot of pluses, but as anyone knows who’s been alive for longer than five minutes, a list that superlative can mean nothing if you feel like your life has hit some kind of existential dead end.

“I, Susannah Parks, have lost the passion in my marriage, somewhere in the slippery, rushing, last-straw hours, and I need to find it. I will find it.

[signed] S Parks

Sparks. Passion and sparks. and when there are no sparks, at least just a little sparkle.

So there we are, a contract. This is not one of my whims. I have also discussed it fully with Ria (my best friend, confidante and very wise person) and she has endorsed my proactivity. She would absolutely tell me if she thought I was being ridiculous. Actually, she did tell me I was being ridiculous, but that was before Christmas when I made noises about wanting to sell our chaotic house and move to the upper Derwent Valley, where Hugh and I can recalibrate, team-parent our free-range children, grow mangrel-wurzels and milk a house cow. She reined me in, which – along with piano, flute and cello – she is very practised at.” (P. 7-8)

And Susannah feels very much like she’s not just hit a dead end but that she’s spinning her wheels to no effect and a palpable lack of interest from the man who swept her off her feet way back in those dim, dark uni days.

Actually, they weren’t that dark at all as it turns out.

Studying with Ria aka Gloria (only Susannah knows her full name and is sworn to secrecy) at the Conservatorium of Music where she was born and raised – while Ria has lived out their shared plans to escape the Apple Isle, Susannah feels like a failure for not even making it out of West Hobart for an overseas holiday – Susannah has a lot of musical promise, composing startlingly beautiful, moving music and dazzling with her viola prowess.

Even more than Ria, she has the world at her feet and dreams of making it big around the world, in much the same way that Ria goes on to do.

But then she meets Hugh, falls in love, he takes a while to fall in love back (existing childhood sweetheart gets in the way at first) and life goes hurtling off, at breakneck domestic speed to a whole other life that she never planned.

At the start, she doesn’t complain; there’s passion and excitement fairly percolating between her and Hugh but as time screams mercilessly on, all that potential seems spent, or at least exercised on the wrong things, and it’s causing Susannah who expected Big Things of Life, no end of angst.

Meg Bignell (image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

The Sparkle Pages, which draws its name from Susannah’s journal which charts the success or otherwise of The Sparkly Project, is refreshingly funny and downright relatable thanks to a protagonist who is as down to earth fallible as they come.

In other words, she’s just like all of us.

After all, who of us hasn’t looked around their life at some critical juncture, or rather an imagined critical juncture, and thought the existential sky is falling in?

Like Susannah, we may a host of boxes ticked on paper but that matters not a whit when our mind and heart are in delusional agreement that things are Very Bad Indeed.

The joy of Bignell’s diary-driven novel is that Susannah is so real and imperfect that everything she is going through feels intensely authentic and true.

There’s nothing in this brilliantly well-realised novel that doesn’t speak to the fact that we are delightfully contrary creatures, and that even when all the ducks are in a row that we are convinced they are flying in different directions with entirely uncoordinated agendas.

Does it make sense? Likely not but what about life really does? The Sparkle Pages succeeds largely because (a) Bignell acknowledges this central truth and (b) doesn’t damn Susannah for falling prey to something that claims all of us at one point or another.

“I’m calling it. Sex week is over. Quantity over quality is never a good idea. Tonight, it was clear that neither of us was at all into it. Well, his penis was but I’ve learnt that doesn’t mean much. I’m pretty sure I heard him sigh. Not a passionate sort of sigh but an impatient one, of the sort one might do when waiting for the children to put on their seatbelts. And me? Well, let’s just say it’s lucky I knew where to find the Vaseline.” (P. 220)

In other words, Susannah’s flawed humanity rings true, gloriously, reassuringly true, and as she stumbles, briefly triumphs and often doesn’t throughout her year-long project, much of which provides amusing fodder for this delightful book, we can readily identify with the fact that even though she has the very best of intentions, she, like all of us, maybe to trying fix something that isn’t broken.

Or at least, is trying to fix something that may not need to be attacked so deliberately or intensively.

There is a lot that transpires in Susannah’s sparkly year and some big life lessons are learned as secrets are revealed and events take decidedly unexpected turns, and through it all, it’s a pleasure to spend time with someone who simply wants the very best of things and is determined to them happen, contrariness of life be damned.

Thing is, life is never that amenable, something that The Sparkle Pages embraces wholeheartedly as Susannah comes to grips with the fact that just because you don’t have what you always wanted, it doesn’t mean that what you do and have is worthless.

Of course, things can be better, they can always be better, but life exists in the greys and the muddled middle and as Susannah grapples successfully with this idea, she comes to a whole new appreciation of life in general, and hers in particular, in ways that will you happily nodding in recognition.

The Sparkle Pages is delightfully silly and funny, heartfelt and dramatic, gorgeously overplayed and desperately real, just like life, with Bignell beautifully tackling how we are so often caught between what is and what we wanted and that while there’s nothing wrong with wanting more, perhaps we are already holding it in our non-cognisant hands and simply need to take a whole new look at what is already before us.

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