I’m already a fan of Angela Meyer – I think I always will be. She has such a fine eye for life and detail and a sense of emotion that is both luxurious and visceral, and in her novel ‘A Superior Spectre’ she mixed the speculative with the acutely human in a way that was both heartbreaking and enlightening.
With ‘Joan Smokes’ – her latest novella – she takes that viewpoint to a different, and possibly higher level. Here she does not investigate the possibility of a future world but excavates the universal, eternal landscape of the human heart. This story is tragic, dark, real – you walk with Joan as she navigates grief and memory and slowly the truth of her loss is revealed so that by the end of the journey you feel gut-punched with empathy.
Angela’s prose is spare but beautiful – rather like poetry – there is a melody or a lyricism underneath it all – and you are transported through the story with a similar urgency to a dramatic song. I’m not sure how she does it – draws you in but also keeps you one step removed, just as Joan herself both views and lives in her life at the same time – till she is haunted by the very memories she flees but observes dispassionately.
Perhaps Joan would agree with Robert Frost – ‘the best way out is always through’. I was struck about midway through the story by how she observes life with such a keen awareness. Joan’s tragedy is that she sees things for what they are – whether it is the dissolution of her great love and her family in the past – or the gaudy, ritualised world she inhabits to escape it. She has nowhere to hide from her own eye, her own mind. There is no true opiate in the world for that.
Just like the nuclear tests she observes, the power of destruction is exhilarating and dangerous. You sense she knows this well – her past was similarly explosive and seductive. But what is the price of such power, such sensation? How much of yourself do you give up to be with another, and what if it is never enough? And what if you know that, what if you see it all?
Joan seeks to understand but may be better off if she wasn’t so good at that. It makes me think the author might be similarly blessed and cursed. Perhaps all great writers carry that duality and their gift is to make us see the truth through their narratives. Whatever the motive or the means, I ached for Joan through this story and while her tale bears no relationship or resemblance to my life at all, I felt I knew it even so. That’s a testament to Angela’s writing and the universality of pain and loss.
I heartily recommend this novella to any reader -but particularly to those seeking a real and raw experience of what it is to be human, and to love.