The above would have been my review of Gwendoline Riley’s Sick Notes had I reviewed it immediately after reading. However, the more time I have to think over the book, the more unforgiving I become with the cobweb thin excuses for characters, plot, motivation. Once upon a time I probably would have loved this novel, would have become intoxicated with the rhythms of Riley’s language, with the lifestyle of drifting between bars and parks and dusty bedrooms and bars, with her heady take on the thrill and awe of intensely felt attraction.
Esther has returned home to Manchester to live with her friend, Donna. She spends her days drinking a lot and wandering the streets, writing, watching and thinking until she meets and spends a few days with an American musician, Newton. There are hints Esther left in the first place to “sort herself out” though her current behaviour dismisses any recuperation ever having taken place. Her behaviour is abrupt, her conversations stunted – though this seems to be a stylistic choice on Riley’s part, the characters communicate almost entirely in non sequiturs. Esther is prone to vicious outbursts of irrational behaviour that do not seem to be prompted psychologically or emotionally, and without any self-awareness on her part. She is infantilized in speech, thought and behaviour.
Donna has a crush on the boy at the biography desk so we have to go upstairs and walk past him a couple of times.
‘Don’t look,’ she says. ‘We’ll stand by that display table and I’ll just ache in his direction.’
As Newton begins to dissect their dalliance and talking about his other lovers, Esther switches off, unable to look at him or be present in the situation or the conversation, she is unable, or unwilling, to verbalize to him how she feels – and yet she finds herself feeling so strongly attached, even as she recognizes what he is trying to communicate. And, so, after he leaves, she mopes and yearns and drinks a lot and I think it is supposed to come across as all being so terribly romantic and melancholic but … it’s just annoying. Are we supposed to empathize with or pity her?
Esther seems hopelessly desperate, and surrounded by friendly idiots who only encourage her unhealthy actions, rather than giving her a firm slap in the face and telling her that her one night stand was probably not the beginning of a great healing romance. Her problems are never fully realized, it is uncertain whether she has really come back from New York or is covering up something else – this is not used as a narrative technique, it’s just presented as halfway interesting background for the real story of Esther and Newton’s whirlwind romance and the disastrous aftermath.
The most painful aspect of Sick Notes is that Riley seems content to glorify Esther’s alcoholism, while never naming it as such. It is, albeit, a seedy glamour, but the high gloss of Riley’s prose lends a particular grace to Esther’s problem. Riley’s prose is synaesthetic; you can feel the cold, dreary rain and long for a cup of the ever present tea to warm your fingers, you can smell the dust and the mould of the house, the stench of gin emanating from Esther’s room. Riley’s style is, in places, undeniably lovely and is only saved from becoming irritatingly twee by a few moments of raw honesty.
Though the dialogue feels staged and unnatural, the characters annoying portraits of studied eccentricities, there are some graceful moments in Sick Notes, but as a result of Riley’s writing style rather than content. It appears that a lot of other people really enjoy it, so perhaps I am the lone voice of dissent on this one. Meh.