Literary novels that manage to be readable, funny and engaging are sadly few and far between and I'm happy to report that I've discovered such a beast - Still Life With June.
Still Life With June is not a new novel - it is a re-issue of a 2003 release. It centers on the life of Cameron Dodds, a 30 year old writer who works at a Salvation Army Treatment Centre. Writers' sources of inspiration can be contentious (holla A.S. Byatt!) but Dodds sees no issue in directly appropriating the lives of the patients at the Sally Ann for his stories. He becomes obsessed with one addict - Darren - who kills himself. He tracks down and befriends Darren's sister, June, who has Down's Syndrome and is living in a care facility. With the help of Dagnia, a fellow member of his writing group who is impersonating a local well-known author, Cameron works to uncover Darren and June's complicated and sad history - with rather unexpected results.
I didn't want to like Still Life With June at the beginning. I keep picking up books with extremely cynical main characters at a time in my life when I am trying to embrace positivity. It's kind of harshing my mellow, as the kids say. However, I also embrace the fact that cynics are really hardcore optimists/idealists who can't stand the sordid reality of life on this planet. Although Cameron is a complete flake and misanthrope, the book works because of the contrast June provides, in all of her child-like sweetness and constancy. Their relationship is rich and becomes increasingly rewarding as the novel progresses.
Unlikely alliances are a theme of this novel - Cameron finds nobility in criminals, hardened criminals find compassion in cynical Cameron. Dagnia and Cameron embrace each other's deception and each other's truths. The characters in this book are outcasts but their alliances create a net of understanding and reprieve. It's only those that don't have the courage to stand by the truth, such as Dean (Dagnia's cancer-ridden brother that she pays Cameron to spy on), that remain on the fringe.
Darren Greer is a talented author. The novel is divided into short chapters, emails and Cameron's stories and I found this not only moved the plot along but mirrored Greer's feckless humour and prevented the story from getting too tied to its darker elements. It is only when the novel gets too into Cameron's head (especially in the beginning) that it flags but thankfully Greer is smart enough to employ a host of characters, settings and plot lines to keep the reader engaged. Still Life With June thankfully never becomes too enamored with its own wit; above all it champions the idea that even the most fragmented life can be healed if one has the courage to face one's deceptions.
Still Life With June/ Darren Greer / Cormorant Books / PB, 2009 (First edition: 2003)
Disclaimer: Cormorant sent me this book to review. I intend to flag these instances whenever they occur. Rest assured, dear reader, that Old B sets out to review all books fairly, regardless of their origins.