While I enjoyed Sadie Jones's first two novels, The Outcast and Small Wars, I didn't get on very well with her third, The Uninvited Guests. I'm pleased to say that she's back on form with her fourth - if 'form' is the word for it. As Victoria from Eve's Alexandria articulated much better than I can here with her post on The Outcast, I have a funny relationship with Jones's fiction; for me, it seems to be constantly caught between the mediocre and the memorable, and while her novels are not forgettable, they often seem to become more old-fashioned than they ought to be. Fallout is no exception, despite its evocative portrayal of 1970s London theatre makers, and I'm afraid, as with The Outcast, I had to return to its gender roles to try to work out why.
Luke is from a working-class family in the north-east, and feeds his obsession with the theatre by collecting playbills and programmes from performances he cannot afford to go to. A chance meeting with Paul, an aspiring producer, and Leigh, his assistant, propels Luke from his familiar world and inspires him to head to London. Turning up on Paul's doorstep, he is taken on to help with their fledgling company, working as a bin man part-time to pay his rent. When Luke starts to write his own plays, the promise of an entirely different future opens up before him, although he is still tethered by his painful past, especially his mother, confined to a mental institute. As Luke struggles with his writing, young actress Nina Jacobs is crumpling under the weight of her mother's expectations and her own frailty. Even when she wins a central role in her drama school's end-of-year production of Chekhov's Three Sisters, she is unable to deal with the strain of a problematic relationship alongside her part. As Paul, Leigh, Luke and Nina continue with their careers, their fates increasingly begin to intertwine, and Nina and Luke enter into a desperate and volatile affair. What will be left of them both when the smoke clears?
The obsessive love between Nina and Luke is at the centre of this novel, but I felt that Jones was only halfway there with her portrayal of its unholy strength. A significant problem for me lay not in the portrayal of the relationship itself but in the depiction of their two characters. Luke was a stand-out for me from the start, never becoming a naive working-class stereotype but standing up for himself even in a world that he knows little about, and ultimately becoming a greater part of it than those who were born to the theatre. Nina, however, was far more problematic. Much as I detest the use of the term 'strong female character' and the depictions of fictional women who do little else but be strong, I think I can see its flipside here with Nina, who is essentially defined by her weakness. Jones does a good job with the interplay between Luke's long-established role as his mother's carer and his attraction to Nina's vulnerability, but it's difficult to understand why Nina is so attracted to Luke, other than that he represents something so different from everything else in her life. The supporting characters add little. Paul never felt like much more than a name to me, and Leigh, despite enjoying considerable success in her own right, remains Nina's foil, a stable shoulder to cry on who struggles to escape from the set of contrasts Jones sets up between the two women - one of whom is 'good' (for her romantic partners) and one of whom is decidedly not.
It's these stagnant gender roles that mar Fallout, despite its strong writing and interesting subject matter. While still worth reading, especially if you have enjoyed Jones's previous novels, I'm afraid it only confirms my previous frustrations with Jones's work. The novels I read tend to fall solidly into one of two categories; three-star (mediocre) or four-star (good to very good). Jones, however, is consolidating her position for me as a 'three and a half star' novelist - which, considering how critical I am of most of what I read, isn't necessarily a bad place to be.
N.B. I received a free copy of this title from the publishers via NetGalley. It's due out in May 2014.