I rarely write standalone reviews for novellas, but Joan Smokes by Angela Meyer, has lingered in a way that I didn’t quite expect.
The story begins in Vegas, where ‘Joan’, is starting over – she buys a new dress; dyes and curls her hair; and begins smoking – all suited to a woman named ‘Joan’, she decides. She finds a job waitressing; allows herself to be distracted by the neon lights of Vegas; and does her best to forget the past, notably her relationship with a man named Jack.
She refuses to feel sad… but something happens to her physically. Ache is too soft a word.
It seems that in writing a novella, authors must carefully choose what to include and what to exclude, particularly in regard to backstory. Meyer tells Joan’s story in vignettes, moving between the past and present. In a mere 68 pages, she creates emotionally complex relationships for Joan, and slowly reveals how a particular incident reverberates through Joan’s life.
She had been right, all along. She had known that some people must understand why they were the way they were, notice when their behaviour slipped from the normal.
There is a threatening hum in this story, centred around Joan’s interactions with Jack –
He broke her heart often. He would be a stranger to her, often, and that’s what breaks the heart.
I am loathe to reveal more, short of saying that Meyer captures the menace that many women in unhappy (and potentially violent) relationships feel – the excuses, the justifications, the mean behaviour.
…she would wrap around him and he would let her, and would put his hand over hers and give a small squeeze. And she’d be so grateful for the small squeeze that her body would flood with relief – enough to sustain her for days, years.
Through the veil of the carefully constructed Joan, we also catch glimpses of the woman she was before – ‘With her mother here she had to find ways of being herself. And she had forgotten how to do that’ – and it is in those brief moments that you feel great empathy for a character you actually know very little about.
Joan Smokes is the winner of the inaugural Mslexia Novella Award (2019).
4/5 Put it on your list, novella fans.
Joan grins at her – the sides of her face are rusty, like the Tin Man’s joints. The smile is genuine. What if she had just been in the wrong place for eighteen years? Had been the whole wrong person?