Brad Watson’s novel comes with the knowledge that it’s based on the life of his great-aunt. The press release uses the word ‘inspired’ – a word which, I’m not entirely sure why, always makes me feel a little uncomfortable but in this case it seems entirely fitting. It’s the story of a woman born in rural Mississippi in 1915 with a birth defect, a genital malformation which closes the conventional path of marriage and children to her.
Unplanned and unwanted, Jane’s birth is an easy one but it’s clear that something is wrong. Jane has been born with a condition about which little can be done in the early twentieth century. Her father blames himself, her mother keeps her distance. She’s a bright child, curious and closely observant, looked after largely by her surly elder sister Grace who comes to love her, albeit reluctantly. Their most frequent visitor is Doctor Thompson who delivered Jane and who takes a concerned and professional interest in her development, corresponding with his urologist friend about the progress of research which might help her. Jane attends school for a short time, managing her incontinence with a strict dietary regime which eventually affects her health. She takes herself off to dances, a pretty girl attracting attention and falling for a young boy who returns her love but forced to retreat before the prospect of marriage appears on his horizon. She follows Grace, long flown the coop, to the small town not far away where they live and work together, Jane returning home when her father eventually dies. Throughout it all, Doctor Thompson remains a steady presence in her life. In the end Jane knows she will be alone but it’s something she’s been preparing for all of her life, facing it with characteristic dignity.
Watson tells Jane’s story with a quiet empathy: never sentimentalising, always compassionate. Jane is a memorable, vividly drawn character – her curious observation as she tries to make sense of sex as a young girl neatly avoids the prurient and her loneliness is quietly wrenching. Watson writes beautifully about the natural world in which Jane finds many of her questions answered. Rural Mississippi is summoned up in vibrant word pictures: the tomato worm studded with a parasite’s larvae under its skin; the plangent cries of Doctor Thompson’s beloved peacocks running wild in the woods; a chapter opening ‘And then there was the long quiet afternoon of autumn’ precedes a particularly glorious description. Watson underpins his story with a wry humour steering it clear of the maudlin – ‘A busy winter it was here with ague and the results of physical violence bred and borne by folks cooped up a bit too much with their chosen enemies’ writes Thompson to his friend. This is beautifully restrained novel – quietly laying out what it is to be different, to understand that what everyone else takes for granted you will not have – all handled with the grace and dignity that Jane embodies. A lesson for us all.