Review: Oliver Reesonon Adriane Howell

Seeking Derangement

Have you ever been really stoned with a complete stranger and even though, even in your heightened state, you know that everything that’s happening is just a bit of fun, there’s something so deeply off-putting about watching this stranger become unmoored from themself in front of you that you begin to panic? Consider the following passage from Hydra, Adrianne Howell’s debut novel, in which the protagonist, Anja, alone and unravelling in her secluded beachside property, prepares to take herself out on the town:

The sun had dipped and I was two bottles of red deep. My mother had refused to materialise in her dresser mirror, leaving me rambling to myself. To hell with friends and chefs and restaurants. Why should I bend to their norms? I was an individual! I needed more than a sales job, a husband and a limp-dick chef. And I was still young! Despite what Beth had insinuated. Why the need to grow up? Sure, I wasn’t in my twenties, though I still knew how to give pleasure, how to derive pleasure. I was confident, accomplished – well, not so accomplished. And anyway, if I wanted to grow dry and sexless on this block of land that sprouted nothing but piles of shit, waiting for sailors to invade, was that not my prerogative? I’d meet the challenges head on! Snap up chairs, snap up property. Torn at the seam, splayed naked, pussy ajar.

This passage is deranged. The narrator then puts her finger inside her vagina and smears the scent on her neck ‘like it was Chanel no.5’. Returning to it after the safety of finishing the book I found it sort of funny. On first reading, I just kept whispering ‘what the fuuuck???’ to myself in my head.

In Hydra, Anja, returns from a holiday on the island of Hydra, divorced, still processing the recent death of her mother, and slowly, as they say, losing it. Employed as an antiques buyer for Geoffrey Browne Auction House, Anja senses that the time away has allowed her unpleasantly girlish and underqualified colleague Fran the opportunity to weasel into Anja’s good standing at Geoffrey Browne. At the inspection of a newly deceased estate, Anja, desperate to find the ‘prima’ – the star object at an auction – before Fran, swipes an antique chair from beneath the deceased’s elderly mother, breaking her coccyx. Anja is quickly placed on stress leave and then, just as quickly, she is let go completely. By chance, she ends up stumbling on an open house on the Mornington Peninsula. She is the only person to attend the inspection. Buried close to the coastline, a run-down heritage-listed workers cottage is being leased by the nearby naval base. Anja spends her inheritance from her mother on a 100-year lease and begins to plan a life of solitude, sinking what’s left after the purchase of the property into converting a rusted-out dinghy, HMAS Hydra, named for the base, into a vegetable patch so she can eventually be entirely self-sufficient. Quickly, her plan is thwarted. The salt air corrodes the delicate sprouting plants, her money is all gone, and what’s more, we’re finally at the book’s central conceit, Anja senses she is being stalked by someone or something. Prizes are left on her doorstep – a pile of shit, a dead rabbit. In the dark sometimes she senses yellow eyes watching her. But she is not chased out – she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Instead, Anja remains on the property, her stay extended when the manager of the local antiques market takes pity on her and gives her some part time work as an administrator.

There is a lot going on in Hydra. As well as breaking the old woman’s coccyx and getting divorced, Anja is assaulted by an antiques collector, which she is content to let happen until her laughter insults him. When her best friend, Beth, a wine merchant, visits her property, they dine at the local farm-to-plate restaurant Goostronomic’. Anja has a drunken affair with the chef, leading to a falling out with Beth. One night, alone and drunkenly trying to hail a cab, a passing driver screams obscenities at Anja from the window of his Commodore before turning his car around and following her. As well as the threads following Anja’s thwarted career, property dealings and apparent stalking, we also learn that her birth father was a 19-year-old Danish boy who was ‘stolen’ back to Denmark by his disapproving parents when she was 2. Since then, Anja’s father has never shown much interest in having her in his life. Listing these things here I want to feel for Anja, who is going through it, to be sure. Unfortunately, reading the book, she’s so unpleasant to everyone around her, the thematic threads so loosely connected, that it was difficult to get any purchase on what I felt about her or the book’s events.

Last year Oscar Schwartz wrote for The Drift about the phenomenon of the ‘gender-flipped mid-life crisis’:

The past year has seen a series of women characters on screen leave partners, family, and jobs in order to achieve some form of personal renewal … They have been lauded by some critics as complex women who correct an abiding double standard. And yet most of them come off as a new type of cliché.

Schwartz writes of women on screen: Leda in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of ‘The Lost Daughter’, Mira in Hagar Levi’s Scenes from a Marriage, Julie from Joachin Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, Miranda Hobbes in the Sex and the City reboot. A similar trend is appearing in literature and could be summarised as the ‘Sour Young Woman’ Ursula Robinson-Shaw recently identified for SRB:

the shadow twin of the now-outré manic pixie dream girl, she’s a kind of depressive goblin nightmare bitch, desirous of but repulsed by intimacy, disenchanted, disaffected, and incapable of positive change, as seen in Halle Butler’s The New Me (2019) and Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2020).

Anja falls absolutely into this category. She’s a smart, mean cold woman, who reminds us repeatedly that she is desired by men, all the while dismissing them without pause. She maintains a distant, competitive, but vital friendship with best friend Beth, but she has no other close female relationships to speak of. Even her relationship with the mother she supposedly grieves isn’t described in warm terms. More than anything, we understand that it, too, was a source of difficulty in her life and like most things, she has intellectual dominion over it. Speaking of her mother’s penchant for moving houses frequently during her childhood, Anja tells us, ‘When I asked her about it, years later, she told me I didn’t feel many things, that she needed to exaggerate to reach me. I think she just liked to exaggerate.’

In her presentation of Anja, Howell has fallen into a contemporary trap, which is to presume that in modern literature a woman losing it is inherently understandable. That to shoulder a great emotional burden makes a female character three-dimensional and complex. Rather, Anja who apparently has always operated on a self-sufficient basis, continues over the course of this book to isolate herself and to consider herself set apart from the world. After describing her father’s absence from her life, Anja assures us:

I don’t mention these details to garner sympathy. Up until the age of thirty, despite having rocky foundations, I’d fashioned my own stability: I’d done well at school, attended top-tiered universities, undergone an internship at Chiswick Auctions and married well. Mrs Hiegel’s accident was regrettable but, you have to understand, I’d been walking the tightrope for some time and my feet had blistered.

Can you get more millennial literature white heroine? She’s made mistakes because she’s been doing too much! Being seen to reject sympathy is a favoured practice of the sour young woman. Feigned humility in the same manoeuvre as positioning yourself as exceptional. It’s the downbeat version of a humblebrag. Returning to Schwartz on the recent screen portrayals of mid-life crisis:

A crisis presents a character with an opportunity to develop, and, when written well, draws out her compelling particularities…Playing out most often among the same subset of people — privileged, white urban dwellers with seemingly no shortage of time and money — the midlife crisis narrative tends to suggest that what makes these people interesting is their capacity for destruction. It valorizes the crisis itself, rather than how it is resolved, as what gives the character depth.

I think what Hydra suffers from most is that Anja does very little except act weird and paranoid while not much really goes on around her. She never makes any efforts to resolve anything, beyond randomly buying a property and starting a veggie garden.

Truly, it’s hard to understand what Anja wants. She doesn’t want a more satisfying career – she liked her career. She doesn’t seek a more creative inner life – she’s proud of the thesis she wrote about classifying antiques by their emotional response and continually thinks about getting recognition for it. She is driven by something – this validation – but it doesn’t seem to be the source of any desire. It just the reasoning that connects one life event to the next. It’s why she married, it’s why she is good at her job and wanted to be promoted. If ‘being seen’ is an internal desire, rather than an external pull, we never really see her admit to such a vulnerability. I have the impression that such an admission would be too ‘basic’ for Anja.

In a climactic argument with her birth father, Anja reflects on an incident from her trip to Hydra. Hordes of squid threw themselves from the ocean onto the beach, an apparent mass suicide without explanation. Anja became obsessed with this event, leaving her husband at the hotel to assist a visiting marine biologist investigate. She thinks that the reason she was compelled to do this was to see the squid in the way her mother deserved to be seen by her lover: ‘They too deserved to have a witness, someone to testify that they had existed upon the earth.’ But this as the book’s epiphany, that being a ‘witness’ is this great act of good and something that all people deserve, is frustrating. It’s frustrating because while she seems to believe she deserves it herself, Anja refuses to witness anyone else with kindness. In that argument with her father Anja scolds him:

“Oh, I forgot, such a moral man, responsible for all the world’s children!”

He stood up and came towards me. “No, Anja,” he said, “I am responsible because when I was younger – just a teenager – someone was not responsible with me. She took no responsibility for looking after me!” He pounded his chest.”

I don’t know here whether Howell has included this to paint Anja’s father as a man-child, having a tantrum about not being taken care of, or to underscore that Anja has overlooked an important aspect of her father’s life, that an older woman, whose description elsewhere speaks to a sort of Peter Pan syndrome personality, perhaps took advantage of his youth. Is Anja witnessing and validating the pain of the people around her the way she seeks to have people witness and validate her?

Don’t get me wrong. Hydra is also full of rich and affecting moments. It has plenty of my secretly favourite fiction follies: lists of things. The lovely, ordered minutiae that slows a narrative down and allows a moment to breathe. It bonds me to characters; it always feels perfectly intimate, humble. Hydra is full of these, the shopping lists, the steps in rejuvenating the purchased property and turning the Hydra dinghy into a vegetable patch, the classifications of antiques. And it works. In these moments Anja is accessible because it’s the only time she behaves like a human, rather than someone who floats above the rest of us, spitting at us for apparently looking down on her. When Anja is out of herself, when she’s drunk, when she’s unsettled by the signs of an intruder at the house, the tension is rendered well. When things are a bit opaque, it is genuinely thrilling. But you can’t rest on that alone, and moments when things should be in focus miss the mark, the author expects some affect that they haven’t wrought.

Anja is snobbish. And I know, you don’t have to like a character to enjoy reading about them. But unlike the Moshfegh characters to whom other reviewers have compared her, she isn’t truly outlandish. There’s nothing really shocking or unsettling about her behaviour, she’s mostly just an arrogant loser. She’s not roundly rejecting connection, she’s not completely unfeeling, she’s somewhere in between. She grieves the loss of her mother, though you never really get a chance to understand their relationship. It’s unclear whether she misses her ex-husband or he was just an object in her quest to be an accomplished woman. She likes her friend Beth but she feels removed from her too, fears losing this connection even though she doesn’t seem to really respect Beth. She feels superior to all of her colleagues.

She is completely unlikeable, but this isn’t where the book ultimately fails. What’s irredeemably uncomfortable about her snobbishness is that this character exists in a book that she herself would be ungenerous about as a cultural object. For instance, part of the narrative around the mystery of the watchful presence unfolds through alternating chapters made up of transcripts from an old naval investigation into similar mysterious happenings on the naval base. The dialogue in the prose sections of the book is ludicrously mannered and this carries over into the transcripts, which read like soapy screenplays rather than historical artefact. The character draws on Jungian analysis but this material is also sort of just jammed in, more to signal that the character reads Jung than to open up any sort of greater insight. There is no depth here, and it’s strange in a book centred on a character so impatient with superficial artifice.

The book also abounds with loosely-connected mixed metaphors. There is the metaphor of cats, there is the metaphor of Hydra – the island, the naval base, the legend. Then you realise these aren’t actually metaphors, they’re just sort of placed all together. They’re coincidences. And that’s where the menace of the book falls flat a bit, the more the plot unspools, the more it all feels like genuine coincidence. Rather than a set of events starting out as coincidences and getting more threatening and then finally condensing into something concrete as things are revealed. For the whole book Anja is haunted by a watchful presence, and in the end this turns out just to be an introduced mountain lion that had already been discovered years earlier in that naval investigation. Colin Tatterson, the man who conducted the investigation, is someone Anja meets at the Antique Marketplace. He shows an interest in the fact that she has leased the property and wants her to come by his stall so he can show her something. The fact that the book’s mystery could have so easily been solved if Anja was just open to conversing with someone she didn’t think was as smart or cultured as her falls entirely flat. How can I understand the threat to a character’s psyche, their morality when I don’t understand how that characters thinks and believe and feels? It all grows a little tedious. Going back to the passage where Anja is growing increasingly drunk and indignant at imagined social threats, pussy ajar: being weird isn’t necessarily ‘wild’. It isn’t necessarily relatable because it’s a woman doing it. We don’t need to yassify derangement. Sometimes, it is just cringe and self-indulgent.

At her mother’s funeral, Anja’s father appears and they stand side by side after the service. ‘This is my moment, I thought, to say something so honest and revealing it will bind us for life. But nothing came to mind.’ This sums up millennial white woman in crisis literature – a central character rendered entirely one-dimensional by their need to be the most multi-dimensional. It is true that to be a woman is to face a heavy burden of expectation of how to do this effectively – how to do ‘woman’ effectively. This is true of all genders. A woman unravelling can be thrilling to read, but she has to actually be unravelling in response to a threat (real or imagined) that we can believe could prompt it. Otherwise we’re not in an exciting delusion, we’re just queasy and wishing it would all start to make sense soon.