A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St. John


I did love Madeleine St. John's only novel set in Australia, The Women in Black, a sweet book. St. John met that amazing set of Australian writers, Bruce Beresford, Clive James, Germaine Greer, and Robert Hughes at Sydney University. She wrote that book, her first, at age 52 while living in London. This one was written in 1996, a year before she was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for The Essence of the Thing.

A Pure Clear Light is the story of a lovely couple with three terrific kids who live in London. Flora had readily given up her Catholicism when she married the sophisticated Simon who thought that high Anglican church was as far as he could imagine her going. He had a terror of plastic Marys with light bulbs inside them. The essential story is that while Flora is responding to an uneasiness by going to church, he is having an affair. He truly does love Flora and their interactions and his with the kids is appealing. On the first page we learn that he has been spotted holding hands in a restaurant with his lover by Flora's friend Lydia. It is not until the very end that we learn how this works out for everyone. 

Here's a sample of the clever interactions with Flora:

On Saturday he'd taken Nell and Thomas out for a McDonald's and a big screen presentation of the latest Disney; by the time he got them home he felt as if he was coming down with multiple rot — teeth, guts, brain, the lot. Except for the presence of the children themselves. The children were beautiful. Even he could see that. Being with them was like drinking the purest most sparkling spring water. It was just their taste which was abominable — in food, entertainment, toys — abominable; execrable. How could this be?

    "What can it mean?" he asked Flora.

    "I suppose it's simply a sign of original sin," she said.

And another:   

     "What are you doing?"


    "Oh. Right. Why not. One day you're going to church, another you're doing fuck-all: I don't know what's come over you lately, Flora."

    "I'm just growing and developing as a person."

    "Oh, jolly good. Carry on."

    "You should try it too."

    "I have done."

    "Then it shouldn't surprise you when I do it too."

It's fun to read, but what are the chances that people in the depth of such struggles sound this clever and dispassionate?

Madeleine St. John, A Pure Clear Light, Carroll & Graf, 1996, 233 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and through Amazon.

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