Book Review – Jacob’s Air by Bruce Russell
I liked Russell’s “Channelling Henry” so much that I made a point of hunting down his earlier novels, the TAG Hungerford Award-winning “Jacob’s Air, and his second novel, “The Chelsea Manifesto.” “Jacob’s Air” was the 1995 winner of the Hungerford Award (which is for a writer who hasn’t yet published a novel length work and is based in W.A.) Russell is from Sydney but he’s lived in Perth about as long as I have, I think (since 1990).
“Jacob’s Air” is set in the Glebe, a suburb of Sydney, in 1984. Specifically, most of the action takes place in an old house by the name of Octavia. The novel is told from the point of view of Delmarie Fairbridge (Deli for short), a twenty-something woman whom we discover is a recovering alcoholic. She has just moved into Octavia with two brothers, Henry and Jacob. The story revolves around the often-strained relationship between these three people, and at times it’s a harrowing tale.
Let me say at this point that while I enjoyed reading “Jacob’s Air,” my enjoyment in it was somewhat less than I got from reading Russell’s third novel, “Channelling Henry.” While the latter was quick-witted, sharp and fast-moving, the former seemed a trifle slow and overly burdened with foreshadowing. I realised quite early that Jacob was going to kill himself, and as I read I started to become a trifle impatient with the narrative. It would appear that Russell is writing about a series of events that happened to him or someone he once knew (perhaps in altered form), and as such I don’t think he had the same control over the material that so impressed me in “Channelling Henry.”
Despite this, “Jacob’s Air” is still an accomplished work. The characters are lovingly detailed, Deli’s voice is engaging and compelling (although I occasionally became annoyed with her glib pronouncements about why someone wasn’t up to her standards). I think it’s always a challenge for a male writer to write in a female voice (or vice versa). It is a challenge I myself relish in my own writing, but it’s a challenge nonetheless. But I think Russell succeeds with his narrator here.
The story rolled on; it was interesting enough to maintain my interest, but not so much that I became entranced by the story. Having said that, “Jacob’s Air” was quite an easy read over its 280+ pages, and I got through it in under twenty-four hours. I am going to conclude this review by reiterating something I said before: it feels as though the writer is too close to the material to really shape it into a compelling narrative. And there I felt I could see the development in Russell’s art between his first novel and his third. Onto “The Chelsea Manifesto.” For those who might be interested, Russell’s fourth novel, “Mick’s Museum,” is apparently going to be published in 2009. I look forward to that with great interest.