I’d finished Emily Perkins debut 1998 novel Leave Before You Go in the early hours of this morning after letting the book lay around getting battered and squashed, disappearing between the wall and the bed, or missing in my rucksack for several weeks – longer than it should take to read this 300 page novel. Normally if a book hangs around getting defaced and dog-eared for longer than a fortnight, it’s a clear sign that either you have an issue with the book’s length, or you’re not really enjoying it.
I’d picked the book up from a charity shop in Dulwich as I found the blurb on the back cover intriguing, by which it sounded similar to the film script I was working on at the time; a story about a lonely, frustrated University Graduate returning home from a year working in Australia to find himself faced with many of the personal issues he’d tried to leave behind. He struggles to find work or a suitable career, and has arguments with his parents before meeting a girl at a festival, and then, mistakenly, helps a wealthy mutual friend of theirs commit a heist at an airport which ends badly for everyone. I’d wanted the story to be about the loss of innocence, the young person’s quest for love and adventure, and the difficulties of finding work or a career as an arts graduate in the midst of an economic recession. To an extent it was biographic where I’d drawn on my own experiences of job interviews and working low paid and tedious jobs in retail and factories whilst desperately trying to get experience with film companies and publishers in London. At the time, I’d really felt like my life had no direction, that it was virtually impossible to get a decent job without experience or further qualifications, and that I was destined to end up working in a depressing call center with school leavers and folks I’d felt superior to and were wasting their mundane lives.
I’d liked Australia, but found it hard finding work either as a Graduate in a professional entry level role or a simple job in a cafe or even bar work and I’d felt this was because there were thousands of gorgeous, young and more experienced backpackers, immigrants and students, all with the same abundance of skills and enthusiasm, searching for exactly the same thing – and I’m not even mentioning the local residents. This made it possible for employers to pick and choose who they could employ, since there was no shortage of applicants in any of the beautiful cities.
I was twenty-seven at the time, and hadn’t really planned to go travelling at all, but the opportunity just fell into my lap one day shortly after graduation when I’d suddenly received a tax rebate of more than a thousand pounds. I’d felt disillusioned and frustrated with my University degree, after feeling I’d learned little except how to write assignments and read theories about cinema and literary discourses, all of which I’d grown painfully tired of. So then, after being diagnosed with depression and feeling like a social failure among my peers and the other aspiring Graduates, I’d decided to use this money to go travelling.
Perhaps it was my background circumstacnes, or my low self-esteem, or because I was never a great student or particularly gifted or bright at anything, although I’d been ambitious, but life had always felt difficult and unfair to me, and I was prone to feelings of resentment and self-pity.
The characters and themes in Perkins novel very much seemed to capture these feelings of inadequacy, frustration and boredom. Feelings which are fairly common, not only among adolescents and young people in their twenties, but familiar with anyone who might be experiencing difficulties finding a job or career, going through a divorce or breakup, or just contemplating their place in the world, or coming to terms with anxieties from their past.
I’d been curious of the novel since I realised that I’d hardly read any books by contemporary female writers, and often chose male authors whose work contained themes or stories that were more typically fast-paced or ‘masculine’ (Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahnuik, Douglas Coupland etc), although I had read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History which could be viewed as a sophomoric thriller the likes of boys coming-of-age novels such as Lord of the Flies or Catcher in the Rye.
During my degree, I’d been exposed to many critically acclaimed books and essays by female authors, and had come to associate female writers, more often than not, with a style of heavy biographical melodrama, alongside feminist themes of persecution and emancipation – perhaps this sounds arrogant and callous, but women always seemed to be on the receiving end of some conflict, and there was often little humour I could relate to.
In the context of a English degree containing modules on feminism, ‘oppositional’ reading, history, postmoderism and gender, no doubt it was important to read these texts. I will a list include a list of the few I can remember; Nervous Conditions, The Yellow Wallpaper, Jane Eyre, Woman at Point Zero, Beirut Blues, To the Lighthouse, Sense and Sensibility, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Wide Sargasso Sea and Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty (who is actually a male author acclaimed for his skill at writing from a women’s perspective). I haven’t included Dead Girls by Nancy Lee, which I’d read long before starting my course, or The Bell Jar (which I’d enjoyed), To Kill A Mocking Bird, Dark Matter by Michelle Paver, Rape: A Love Story by Joyce Carol Oates, and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, all of which I’d read sometime after graduating. I will admit that I’d never bothered to read Jane Eyre, and had struggled to finish the novels by either Austen and Woolf. It seemed that most of these novels focused on the usually complex and contradictory attitudes towards women in an ideologically and politically oppressive society, while exploring the psychological and emotional obstacles of challenging the preconceptions of women’s roles experienced by the characters.
Unfortunately, after a time I found myself trying to predict or create a mental checklist of cliches. Perhaps this is contentious, especially since many of these novels were set in periods of history or countries in which women’s roles were subject to Draconian cultural or religious values. A checklist might resemble something like this:
1. The narrative starts in childhood about a young girl who is abused or abandoned by her mother or father.
2. The girl, or woman as she matures, is married to an abusive husband or boyfriend she does not love.
3. She becomes alienated and is forced to survive on her own and educate herself.
4. She falls in love but this time on her own terms, or has a lesbian relationship.
5. She kills or is killed by her husband/boyfriend.
6. She has an affair with a married man, or who has an affair himself.
7. She eventually has children and becomes a mother herself and becomes empowered.
8. She finds God, or she stops believing in God.
To be fair, most of these themes of catharsism and transgression appear in epic works of literature and pop culture in one form or another, from Homer’s The Odyssey to Stars Wars to JK Rowling to Lady GaGa. I am not suggesting that I fully understand or am aware of the important social and political shifts which have occurred over the past century concerning women’s roles and attitudes towards gender, nor I am implying that writers who explore such issues are without merit, only that from the books I’ve mentioned, the content is sometimes difficult to read, and perhaps I’m not as open minded or mature enough to appreciate the value of those books as much as I did The Odyssey or novels by male contemporaries, although I did find The Bell Jar engrossing. In fact, I probably just haven’t read enough, but want to avoid the obvious rhetoric that men just don’t understand women.
Leave Before You Go is a ‘contemporary’ novel about the current generation of young professionals, Graduates and teenagers growing into adulthood. Unfortunately, I’d felt that the reviews from The Times and The Independent tended to over praise the book’s prose and content, and despite its merits, seemed to overlook that at moments it felt like a TV sitcom melodrama the likes of Dawson’s Creek, Hollyoakes and The O.C., with poetic passages of metaphors and ambiguity in the form of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar ( but to be fair, I’d never watched Dawson’s Creek or Hollyoakes, but will assume that dramas depicting the consequences of love, sex and relationships is cogent).
The characters have a habit indicative of films and books that portray youth culture and young people in the 1990s which you might call the ‘The Breakfast Club’ syndrome, in which they appear to analyse their own thoughts and behaviours, and sometimes make ironic, self-deprecating comments about how stereotypical their lives are. The characters do what perhaps all young people self-consciously find themselves doing, judging themselves or others on an elusive and undefinable notion of ‘cool’, or if not cool than to an extent ‘ironic’.The novel’s themes and drama seem ironic, but perhaps not to the degree of satire, or ‘deconstruction’, which you might attribute to Douglas Coupland, Dave Eggers or Bret Easton Ellis.
The central male character Daniel, a handsome, troubled and unemployed Londoner in his twenties, decides to accept his friend’s offer of smuggling some packets of heroine into New Zealand. Drugs, petty crime and danger play a large part of Daniel’s motivation, and which becomes a key theme of morality and responsibility in the story. I couldn’t help but think of Alex Garland’s debut novel The Beach (1996), and how in a weird way, Perkins novel was like a counter point to that novel. Except here the young man is less of an idealistic rebel with a sharp wit and a poetic soul than a ignorant and selfish boy lacking any sense of depth or purpose in life. The novel’s true heroine is Kate who, despite her lack of ambition and frustration with her sister and mother, shows a loving and optimistic nature which develops throughout the novel. The narrative begins alot like The Beach, except that Daniel, unlike Kate, is devoid of any genuine charm or imagination, and whom I couldn’t help, despite myself, feel some sympathy for. Perhaps this was Perkins intention all along, to show the arrested development of these young adults struggling with their adolescents and unable to grasp a true sense of responsibility or self worth.
Daniel seems so utterly without redeeming qualities, and after convincing Kate and her friends to let him stay, borrowing a substantial loan and then, somewhat unintentionally, seducing Kate and her sister before then lying to them both, he finally resorts to abandoning them for a trip to Australia. The only thing he seems to understand or value is adventure and escape, which inevitably causes his downfall. As the novel progresses, Perkins simply refers to him as ‘the liar’ as she narrates his lack of sincerity, his guilt and sabotaging impulses, and while Daniel becomes more deluded Kate becomes more enlightened and apathetic to her need for male companionship.
I had wrongly assumed that a romance or relationship in which Daniel and Kate somehow remained friends or confessed the truth would have occurred, but Perkins deliberately allows their relationship fizzle and then end abruptly, thereby taking eliminating any major complexity or further sitcom melodrama. This happens whilst Kate’s best friend Lucy and her boyfriend Josh discover that a girl he’d had an affair with is pregnant, Josh being a man of apparent conviction and empathy of which Daniel lacks (at one point Daniel even remarks that Josh lacks any skill in deception), and which allows Kate to give her support and observe the couple’s breakup at the same time she comes to suspect Daniel may have slept with her more attractive and successful sister. Towards the end, Perkins narrates the feelings of Kate’s mother and her sister as they show a mutual contempt towards her as someone who lacks strength, ambition or ability; the final message Perkins makes is simply that Kate is better off without Daniel and her judgmental family, all of whom end up being punished for their complacency, and I wonder if this is Perkins ‘up yours’ revenge tribute to her peers and high school naysayers.
From these events, where Kate becomes a witness to betrayal and eventually learns to demonstrates some self-control towards Daniel, the drama feels disappointing without any major developments, as one critic described this as being comparable to Raymond Carver, but which I felt was awkward without being profound.
Passages written from Kate or Daniel’s thoughts show them contemplating the city, the weather and the beauty of their surroundings. Daniel carries a stolen camera with him which he pretends to use for the sake of those around him, and which seems like an emblem of the lies and self-deception which he’d been pursuing his whole life. The final metaphor shows Kate in her garden contemplating the stars and then observing the two-dimensional insect vision of a bee when it lands on a flower. Simultaneously, Daniel becomes stranded on a rooftop taking one last look at the beautiful city after making empty promises to himself about paying his friends back, and discovering he has himself locked outside and unable to escape.