Jane Alison’s Nine Island is a captivating look at love and loneliness. J, our narrator, is a middle-aged woman who retreats to a glass high-rise condo somewhere on Miami Beach, hiding under the glare of the harsh sun and pastel colors, where she can nurse some emotional wounds and take stock of her life. Should she give up on love? “I’m not old yet, but my heart is sick with old desire, and I’m back in this place of sensual music to see if it’s time to retire from love.”
J is recovering from a divorce and a string of ill-advised hook-ups with ex-boyfriends. To top it off she’s working feverishly as a translator of Ovid’s stories of metamorphoses. There’s not much that goes on in this slim novel except the character’s musings about her triumphs and mistakes in life, but it is so concentrated with searing emotional truth about the vulnerability of being alone and the pathos of love found/love lost that I can say it is one of the most riveting things I’ve read this year.
What makes Nine Island so compelling is that J is sharp in her observations of her inner and outer worlds. She turns the gaze not only on herself but also on her quirky neighbors. She’s reeling from broken relationships with men but surprisingly it’s the women she turns her gaze to. Ovid’s stories were about women—women chased, women violated, women transformed. She sees these women everywhere in her neighbors, her mother, and, yes, herself. The novel is a heady mix of fantasies and reflections of the past—failures, near-triumphs, happiness. In a twist of the spinster stereotype, we see her dealing with her elderly cat who is deaf, blind, and incontinent. It could veer into cringeworthy territory but the way J talks about that daily relationship cuts and burns without the hint of sap.
Water plays a recurrent motif throughout; it’s J’s work on Ovid seeping into the world around her: she swims almost daily at the pool. Puddles of rain, humidity, and tears abound. Often her interactions with others happen at the pool. It’s where she talks to others but also swims alone. This watery setting is a powerful backdrop that Alison wields with poetic precision without being precious or baroque. The tone of the book is one of a confession and jotted notes. Many of the chapters are just a few paragraphs long; some are achingly lyrical; others are razor sharp and funny; and a few are giddy, droll, and sexually playful. Interconnected vignettes—I was blown away by the range. Alison makes it all come together brilliantly.
The best thing about Nine Island is that it feels brutally honest and real. There is a tendency to overlook women who get to a certain age and live alone as not worthy protagonists. They become invisible, irrelevant, without a story worthy to be told. No children? No husband or partner? You might as well retire from life and give up. But J says ‘screw that.’ Her life is full of spark and wit and self-awareness, and she’s far from giving up.
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