Despite very much enjoying Emma Jane Unsworth’s Hungry the Stars and Everything almost four years ago, I still haven’t got around to reading Animals. It’s been quite some time since that was published but I’d be surprised if fans don’t think Adults was worth the wait. It’s the story of Jenny, fast approaching middle-age, who’s in the grips of a social media addiction that’s distracting her from her many problems.
Jenny writes the Intense Modern Woman column for an online feminist magazine which seems a little too concerned with chasing hits. She’s obsessed with social media – painstakingly composing a one-word caption for a croissant when we meet her, checking her phone mid-sex with her boyfriend of seven years – now her ex – and agonising over whether she should ‘like’ her internet crush Suzy Brambles’ latest self-promoting post. She has a house full of lodgers who unknowingly provide good copy and a scratchy relationship with her mother – once an actress, now a psychic. Jenny frenetically clicks and posts – stalking Suzy Brambles, checking up on her ex, reading nuances into every infinitesimal time lapse between likes and seeking her best friend’s approval for her many posts. The lone parent of a fifteen-year-old and the only sensible voice in Jenny’s life, Kelly’s patience finally snaps as her friend’s life unravels in an endless cycle of craving approbation, no matter how fleeting, from people she’ll never meet and who may not even exist. A crisis is on its way but by the end of the novel, Jenny has found a way to live and finally understood the value of friendship.
I don’t know how to feel about anything anymore
Unsworth’s novel manages to be both moving and cringe-makingly funny as Jenny’s story unfolds in short episodic chapters, flashbacks, emails, social media posts and furious unsent drafts – a clickbait narrative that echoes her state of mind. Stuffed full of sharp one-liners and smart observations about modern life, it’s on the button in its depiction of social media addiction, uncomfortably so at times. Unsworth smartly nails the chasm between how some of us present ourselves to the social media world and the chaos of reality, not to mention the painfulness of over-emoting, on screen and off, and the pervasiveness of life lived via our devices.
I used to do things for their own sake but now grammability is a defining factor
The thin-skinned, self-absorbed Jenny could very easily have become an irritating caricature but Unsworth keeps our sympathy engaged, slipping in details of the story that lies behind her behaviour. The result is an intelligent, acerbic and entertaining piece of fiction with a heart.
The Borough Press: London 2020 9780008334598 400 pages Hardback