by Rebecca Jessen

Would a gun fit in a shoebox? I suppose so. Good, key moment, anyway, in this verse novel, told by twenty-three-year-old Ana in deceptively simple, widely page-spaced language, often a single word to a line. We learn early in the piece that Ana has just killed a man. But oddly, she soon has other things competing for her attention. Like how is Indie, her fifteen-year-old sister, who shares Ana’s house, coping?
Is there a chance that a snaffled relationship with Sawyer, her former school friend, now policewoman, will rekindle?

There are three discrete parts in the book. Within these, short one-to-three page ‘chapters’ break up the narrative, the first line of each forming a title. Although it is doubtful whether any would stand alone as poems, what works convincingly is the accretion of layers in narrative style and the rounding out of Ana’s distinctive character. She is an outsider with strong inner convictions, a highly moral murderess if you will.

Social and political issues are never far below the surface. Ana, we learn, left her family home after a series of uncomfortable confrontations with her impoverished single mother and more than one stepfather. Ana makes difficult, damaging choices in terms of associates, drugs, work and housing. Hers is a voice with a ring of honesty. Dropping out of school at sixteen and now working two jobs to support vulnerable Indie takes its toll, but she knows she must keep going or she and her sister will fall through various ‘gaps’ which threaten to open up.

The central non-family relationship is the apparently casual but reciprocally passionate one between Ana and Sawyer, brought out incrementally as we piece together the history of the pair, beginning secretly at school, undergoing a drifting or uncommitted phase before a reignition of intensity. Sawyer’s choice of profession impacts on her personal yearnings. We don’t get access to her internal narrative, so everything is mediated through Ana’s account. Readers must weigh up evidence provided to draw their own conclusions about Sawyer’s intentions, particularly at the riveting, if closure-resisting conclusion.

Scenes with Ana and Sawyer are compelling, as each sizes up the other. Their shared past, the frisson of unstable but potent sexuality, senses of past and present guilt and fraught futures are all bound up. Jessen shows without telling effectively: ‘I watch her/get into her car/body slumped forward/with/a weight/that is not/her own.’

A reading audience for Gap is an interesting question. The language used is accessible and appropriate for middle-year secondary readers. But the material of Ana’s life is sophisticated and adult readers will find themselves being swept along with Ana’s morality, justice and companionship dilemmas. Issues of desire and acting upon it, particularly in the midst of moments of suspicion and accusation, may well be beyond the ken of younger readers. Maybe age is no bar to understanding contrary physical sensations at critical emotional junctures.

Scenes of arousal and close comforting are unlikely to offend any but the prudish. More is hinted than spelled out: ‘holds me/tight/trying/to make up/for lost time’ … ‘I’d forgotten the feeling of weightlessness.’ Much of what happens has a dream-like feel, even tensions surrounding possible imminent capture come across as noirish rather than fitting a thriller paradigm. Verb choice matters: ‘Cling to/the backstreets’, ‘try to/shake/life into/my veins’. Striking imagery also abounds: ‘the faint metal scent of life’.

Motives and explanations for the killing do not emerge until well through the narrative. The choice to withhold such information seems right. Whether your empathy for Ana continues or abates will depend on your values and the extent to which Ana has won you over. Either way, Jessen renders ethical uncertainty memorably: ‘Chest is/heavy/like a mouth full/of winter air/is this how it feels/to have a/conscience?’

In many ways, Gap is a novel of conscience. How should you deal with personal injustices and threats? What obligations, loyalties do you owe to family members, friends, associates, lovers, to truth? Jessen has presented Ana as a warm and deeply responsive and responsible young woman who has undergone a series of calamitous events, has reacted in forthright, if questionable, ways and who is prepared to look beyond her own situation and to face her future with gritty hope.

Bill Wootton is a Victorian reviewer

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