Author: S. A. Jones
UWA Publishing RRP $27.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

Isabelle of the Moon & StarsA stunning exploration of the dark places within us, Isabelle of the Moon & Stars caught me by surprise; the beautiful prose reeled me in and let me go hours later, satisfied and thoughtful. Author S.A. Jones says she “wanted to write about the ‘everyday heroism’ of living with a mental illness” rather than “representing the mentally ill as idiosyncratic but endearing and largely ‘curable’ by love”. I’d say she succeeded, hands down.

Like so many of us, Jones’ protagonist Isabelle is just trying to keep it together, doing her best to keep ‘The Black Place’ at arms’ length. It’s been a constant battle since ‘the incident’ two years earlier. At work, she’s given meaningless tasks to avoid any repetition of ‘the incident’, which keeps Isabelle locked into a management-contrived comfort zone. At home, she has contrived her own comfort zone comprising ‘routine, force of will and punishing physical exercise’. The order she has created works most of the time. Sometimes it doesn’t. When Isabelle falls for her boss, Jack, and her celibate best friend, Evan, makes his feelings for her apparent, her carefully controlled order fragments. The only way to escape the chaos is to run … to Prague.

Isabelle’s story resounds with authenticity. At times it’s raw and honest; at others it’s confronting, especially where pre-existing stigmas about mental illness are challenged – as they should. Through Isabelle, Jones examines the other side of dealing with an illness with few visible signs, with all its frustration and feelings of helplessness:

A surge of fury takes hold of Isabelle. If Jack lost a leg in a car accident or developed glaucoma and went blind, how would he feel if she reduced his trauma to ‘the incident’? Sometimes she wishes The Black Place came with a cast or a splint, something visible and explanatory. (p48)

Then there are the moments when the mind wants desperately to believe that all is well:

At such a moment she can almost believe that The Black Place does not exist. (p86)

Yet she feels buoyant and masterly because she has refused to bow to The Black Place and its wastrel energy. (p92)

Perhaps if she is very still, very sure, The Black Place will fail to sniff her out and will sweep past … (p93)

And then the panic and the autopilot when darkness comes to call:

The Black Place glides under Isabelle’s skin and displaces her. Isabelle is no longer Isabelle. She is a container of despair, a repository of every free-floating grief seeking a home … (p94)

I think the word ‘displaces’ says it all. With this sensitive, careful story, Jones has achieved the difficult task of showing the world of a person living with a mental illness in a way that does not trivialise or reduce the experience to well-intentioned platitudes. That said, this is by no means a bleak or depressing book – rather it has a warmth and humour that infuses the darkness with light.

A book for those who have experienced mental illness, or know someone who is, Isabelle of the Moon & Stars made me smile, cry, empathise, shake my head, nod my head, and think. The Perth setting only added to sense of familiarity I felt. I loved this book and recommend you curl up with it for a few hours. Just looking over it to write this review makes me want to re-read it.

For an extract, click here.

Available from good bookstores and UWA Publishing. My copy was courtesy of UWA Publishing.

Bookish treat: The hot Australia Day where it all comes apart makes me think of lamingtons. And a cool, crisp white wine.