‘There’s uphill reading and downhill reading,’ a character explains towards the end of John Purcell’s new novel. ‘As you can imagine, uphill reading requires more effort. Downhill, less so.’
The Girl on the Page, then, is a downhill book about uphill books, or, if you prefer, commercial fiction about literary fiction. It seems an impossible feat – a beach read where the climactic moment is the announcement of the Booker Prize winner! – but Purcell pulls it off.
His novel centres on Amy Winston, a brilliant but self-destructive young book editor. At her boss’s behest, Amy agrees to coax author Helen Owen into handing over her latest manuscript for publication. Helen, we are told, is a literary great in the same class as Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch. She has been married for 50 years to the equally acclaimed novelist Malcolm Taylor, but their formerly perfect union is now in deep crisis mode, and Amy finds herself drawn into their conflict.
There’s no crime element here, but the novel reads like a fast-paced thriller. Each of the three key players possesses an iron will, and their desires are all at cross-purposes. Something’s got to give. This sense of building pressure is what makes The Girl on the Page nearly impossible to put down.
Sentence by sentence, Purcell isn’t doing anything fancy or, indeed, subtle. No theme goes unexplained, no plot development unremarked, no sex scene undescribed. (Not that I’m complaining. Purcell previously authored a bestselling ‘erotic trilogy’ under a pseudonym; he knows what he’s doing.)
Yet this book is revolutionary in its own way. The characters are types we rarely see in fiction, commercial or otherwise. Amy is a beautiful mess, boozing and sleeping her way around London, but she’s also preternaturally intelligent and self-assured. I can think of countless male protagonists who get to be messed-up but competent; I can’t think of a single female one.
Most striking of all is The Girl on the Page’s unapologetic fascination with the written word. In his day job, Purcell is Director of Books for Australian online retailer Booktopia, and his expertise shows. Dozens of authors are referenced and discussed here, from Lee Child and Jojo Moyes to E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. Purcell’s characters are sometimes snobbish about what constitutes ‘real literature’, but he himself never is. He is brimming with affection for both books and the book business, even at its most cynical. (At one point, he has Amy joke about the current trend of putting ‘Girl’ in titles. The cheek of him!)
In the passage I quoted above, the character goes on to observe, ‘Readers will do both [uphill and downhill] in their reading lives.’ The Girl on the Page is a delight because Purcell understands this very thing – that the literary fiction reader and the commercial fiction reader are often the same person. We like Proust; we also like page-turners. Who says we can’t have both?
Reviewer: India Lopez
HarperCollins, RRP $35