BOOK REVIEW: ‘Sweet Damage’: Enthralling Psychological Novel by Australian Writer Rebecca James

REVIEWED BY DAVID M. KINCHEN
Two quotations separated by many decades reverberated through my brain when I read “Sweet Damage” (Bantam Books, 304 pages, $25.00), the sophomore novel by Australian writer Rebecca James.

Sweet Damage jacket
One was the famous first sentence of the 1938 novel by Daphne Du Maurier, “Rebecca”, made into an outstanding film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

The opening sentence in “Sweet Damage is: “I still dream about Fairview.”

The second quotation comes from the outstanding Showtime series “The Affair.” Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and his family are spending the summer at the Hamptons mansion of his father-in- law, Bruce Butler (John Doman), a best-selling novelist. Bruce manages to put down Noah, a teacher who has just published a novel and is working on his second book, by telling him: “Everyone has one book in them. Almost nobody has two.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that Rebecca James has fulfilled the promise of her 2010 debut novel, “Beautiful Malice.” Here’s my July 15, 2010 review of “Beautiful Malice”: http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/100715-kinchen-columnsbookrev…

Tim Ellison is a twenty-something cook in his father’s restaurant in the Manly Beach area of Sydney, Australia. It’s convenient for him because he’s an avid surfer. What’s not convenient is that he sleeps on a sofa in the apartment of his former girlfriend, Lilla. Even more inconvenient is the presence of Lilla’s current boyfriend, Patrick!

Lilla goes to the Internet and finds what she thinks is a perfect new abode for Tim: for A$100.00 a week, it’s a furnished room with kitchen privileges in a large house convenient to the restaurant and his surfing spot. All he has to do is to be a companion to the mansion’s owner, Anna London, 20, who recently lost her parents in a freak motor vehicle accident.

I’m not going to spoil the suspense of the novel, told in alternating scenes by Tim and Anna. In this respect it’s much like “The Affair,” told in alternating scenes by Noah Solloway and the married local woman he’s having an affair with, Alison Bailey (played brilliantly by British actress Ruth Wilson). This literary form works for Rebecca James — and her readers– and it works for viewers of “The Affair.”

Tim settles in and slowly gets to know Anna London, seemingly stalled in her recovery from the deaths of her parents. She doesn’t want to travel beyond the grounds of her magnificent mansion. She spends much of her day in the attic. Tim does the shopping for the household and, using his culinary skills, shuns the canned goods (tinned in Oz-speak) in the pantry and prepares fresh meals for Anna and himself.

About the only friends Anna has are Marcus and Fiona, siblings who are lawyers in their own firm. But Lilla can’t let go of Tim and she works with Anna to have a birthday party for Tim. In the process, she manages to insult Anna in many ways, much to Tim’s disgust. Showing another side of her complicated personality, Lilla gives Anna a cosmetic and garment makeover, revealing a truly beautiful woman in Anna. Readers will quickly like Tim — and hate Lilla — or at least have ambivalent feelings about her.

I’ll call this a neo-Gothic novel, with mysterious appearances in the night in Tim’s bedroom, the writing on the wall and the loud noises in the night.

“Sweet Damage” should appeal to both women and men, particularly young women and men. But I’m guessing that most of the readers will be women. Too bad, because the author has great insights into the feelings of men. (Yes, believe it or not, we have feelings!) So guys, borrow your girlfriend’s copy of “Sweet Damage” and prepare to be surprised!
About the author

Rebecca JamesRebecca James is the author of “Beautiful Malice,” “Sweet Damage,” and the forthcoming “Cooper Bartholomew Is Dead.” She has worked as a waitress, a kitchen designer, an English teacher in both Indonesia and Japan, a barmaid, and (most memorably) a mini-cab telephone-operator in London. She lives in Canberra, Australia, with her partner and their four sons. Her website: http://www.rebeccajamesbooks.com

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