Longlisted for the 2016 Stella Prize, Panthers & The Museum of Fire by fiction writer, Jen Craig, made an impression on reviewer Angela Long. Read on…
- Title: Panthers & the Museum of Fire
- Author: Jen Craig
- Publisher: Spineless Wonders
Angela’s Review: As I started to read this novella I knew immediately that I was reading a unique work. From the opening paragraphs the reader is destabilised, never quite sure of the purpose of the writer. There are no classic plot points and yet I was compelled to continue, barely putting it down until I was finished. This could have been because there are no chapter breaks, in fact no breaks at all; or it could have been because I was intrigued as to where it was going. Written entirely as a stream of consciousness, every paragraph seamlessly entwined the past, present and future, twisting and turning and doubling back to where it started.
Written with unselfconscious irony, Jen Craig ‘s protagonist is indeed Jen Craig and it is this same Jen Craig who sets out to return a manuscript called Panthers and The Museum of Fire, written by the recently cremated Sarah, who may, or may not—depending on where you are in the journey—be an old friend from school, or her only friend. It is this dualism of character and story that parallels the lives of Jen and Sarah and sets up the premise of an unreliable narrator.
This is an exploration of the mind and the intricate connections that lead us from one place to another. As Jen walks the manuscript from Glebe to a café in Crown Street Sydney, we enter into a journey of self-discovery; a journey that is indulgent and neurotic, that focuses on everything and nothing at the same time; mirroring the manuscript that Sarah has written.
While Jen walks we share her most private thoughts. We learn about her anorexia, how she ironically shared the name Jenny Craig with a multi-national dieting company and the intimacy that she wasn’t cured of anorexia, she simply killed the anorectic inside her. Her foray into religion and its consuming nature. The vagaries of memory and time and place. Truth and lies. Revelations on friendships. Epiphanies on writing. Each thought tangled into the next and creating momentary clarity for the protagonist, who remembered ‘the euphoria of believing that, with belief, I had become the protagonist of a story.’ and yet the story is incidental to the reflection.
As the tale unfolds Jen reveals Sarah as her alter-ego. Friends at school, Jen declares that they were nothing alike. She was a ‘nobody from nowhere … they were powerful’; Sarah’s family drove foreign cars, Jen’s a Ford; one mother was elegant the other grey. We learn of Jen’s anorexia as Jen learns of Sarah’s obesity; Jen mourns her years of wrangling with words to produce a novel and yet Sarah, who had little interest in writing, hides herself in a hole of a place for a year or two to produce a manuscript of such significance. And yet despite their differences, they are one and the same both socially inept, both devoid of close relationships, both wanting to be something and facing the fear of being a fool.
Like a Escher drawing there seems to be no beginning and no end, the entire work an illusion leaving the reader with nothing more than what you started;
‘The whole time you were reading, you were also waiting. As soon as you started the manuscript, you would find yourself waiting for it to start, to really start.’
And yet even as I write this I feel drawn to begin again in an attempt to find what I know isn’t there.
This is by no means an easy read, it’s ironic and intelligent; the sentences are long and the punctuation intense and above all it will make you down right annoyed at its sheer brilliance.
Link to Book trailer https://youtu.be/Mb4OWAWEcGo
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This book has been read and reviewed by Angela Long for Welcome to my Library for the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
For more information please see their website ‘Supporting and promoting books by Australian women’