The Book reads very quickly. This is not just because it’s only 154 pages of reasonably spaced text, but also because Bonnie’s voice drives the story along as we try to understand, from her perspective, the multiple relationships that surround her and the way in which her parents’ choices impact on her.
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Jessica Bell
Paperback: 154 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1481179300
Bonnie is a precocious five year old that we come to know through a variety of lenses. The first is in the pages of a journal that her parents start to keep for her while she is still in the womb. Bonnie’s mother and father write in separate passages of sad, confused and always loving explanations of their lives, actions, and feelings, designed to be a gift for Bonnie when she’s old enough to understand. There are also a series of taped interviews of Bonnie talking to her psychiatrist Dr Wright. It isn’t made clear why 5 year old Bonnie has been sent to a psychiatrist, and it isn’t mentioned in the journal entries, but perhaps it may have something to do with Bonnie’s excitability – a character trait that becomes more of an issue as the book progresses. The final narration is from Bonnie herself. Written in Bonnie’s own youthful voice and from Bonnie’s perspective, these passages are structurally standard and easy to follow, but use distinctive spellings and childlike syntax to create a voice that is compelling and unique:
”I don’t know why he bovvers to smile when the smile is really invisible sad words. Now Mary looks at me too and does doll’s eyes again. That makes my Mr Stomach feel like there are fuzzy clouds in it. I don’t think it was a nice thing to do to me. Sometimes I think grownups are stupid just pretending to be smart. (57)”
The Book reads very quickly. This is not just because it’s only 154 pages of reasonably spaced text, but also because Bonnie’s voice drives the story along as we try to understand, from her perspective, the multiple relationships that surround her and the way in which her parents’ choices impact on her. In many ways, though the journal is designed to be a gift for Bonnie, it becomes a curse, filled with secrets that cause considerable pain to those people whose lives move around it. Bonnie’s voice is certainly the main focus of The Book but there is also Bonnie’s mother Penny, her stepfather Ted, her father John, and her step-sister Mary, as well as Dr. Wright, all of whom develop distinctive sounds and narrations. We learn about each of them primarily through Bonnie’s eyes, but Ted and Mary have dialogue, and Penny and John have their journal entries. The montage of these characters and the way in which they pivot around Bonnie and the journal are all handled delicately, and with the kind of tight mastery that one has come to expect of Jessica Bell.
The Book raises as many questions as it answers, hinting at a series of stories that are only lightly touched on, and leaves the reader both shocked, moved, wanting more, and satiated. It can be read in a single afternoon, as we not only begin to understand what the journal means to Bonnie as she begins to blame it for the disintegration of her families, but to begin to get the sense that Bonnie is both prescient and right in her assessment that grown-ups can be stupid. Bonnie’s logic makes more sense than the ‘invisible’ twisted communication of her parents. That The Book can bring us back to ourselves and hold up an uncomfortable mirror on adulthood is part of its charm.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.