From her balcony on the 21st floor of a Miami high-rise apartment, a woman, identified as “J,” muses over the comings and goings of neighbors and strangers, all the while contemplating her own solitude. It feels a little voyeuristic, reading the intimate thoughts of a woman being a voyeur herself, and at times even like reading someone’s personal journal. But in this, as though stumbling on a trove of stories and secrets, we find a book that’s hard to put down.
It’s true, because I read Jane Alison’s Nine Island (Catapult) in one afternoon. It picks you up and carries you swiftly along its pages through a combination of snappy and thoughtful prose, wonderful humor, and an honest interrogation of what it means to be a woman who chooses to be ‘alone.’ Alone, in this case, meaning free of any committed heterosexual relationship, and living independently in an apartment with an ailing cat and neighbors who take too much of an interest in that aloneness.
Following her divorce and return from Germany, J has spent the past two years in the sun, on a “heat-seeking tour of old boyfriends” which only repeatedly leads to dissatisfaction. She decides to ruminate on retiring from romantic love entirely, finding her most recent excursions to be fruitless, and the prospect of searching for new dating prospects exhausting.
Sometimes you make a bad choice in these matters, of men and horns and fins.
Sometimes it seems no choice is good.
And really, I lie when I ask who made men the trees, the stars.
Almighty fathers and stepfathers: that’s who.
In her resolve to evaluate if romantic love is worth the trouble, J opens herself up to new relationships with her condo neighbors. She doesn’t seem overly eager to foster any attachments there – being completely devoted to her translations of Ovid’s poems – but one particular neighbor she meets by the pool, N, becomes a dear friend. The woman lives with chronic pain but insists J come over for wine; she takes a keen interest in J and wonders why she isn’t looking for a man to spend the rest of her life with. It’s a nagging that doesn’t let up, but J seems fascinated by N and allows her in as a trusted confidante.
If it weren’t for Alison’s idiosyncratic tone and sharp turns of phrase, Nine Island may have been a lull befitting of the condo community N lives in, watching retired neighbors swimming in the pool and going out to feed a stranded duck in the afternoon. Instead, we have a writer who explores and tackles tired concepts with creativity and zest. The result is witty and deeply felt.
When N thinks about a girl she went to college with, an avid runner, she wonders what it is that she’s so insistently running away from. She recalls an old boyfriend who had a crush on the runner, who thought somebody must’ve “really screwed her” when he wasn’t able to win her over. Our narrator, however, offers her entitled male friend a different, more nuanced take.
Maybe, I thought. Or maybe she just doesn’t want to let anyone in. What’s wrong with that? Who made it obligatory?
For J, finding someone for the sake of finding someone is not obligatory, even though people around her try to make her feel like that’s the way it should be. All she can do is continue to take things in stride, and keep in mind the words of her friend: “If you retire from love, N once told me, you retire from life.” And in this life, Alison shows us, there is much beauty to be seen, even in the mundane goings on of an aging condo complex.
(Catapult, Autofiction, Paperback, September 2016)
You can keep up with Jane Alison’s work at janealisonauthor.com.
LESLEY LEROUX is a writer, editor and artist based in Canada’s capital (originally from Newfoundland). She graduated with a degree in journalism from Carleton University. Her fiction, nonfiction and photography have been published both in print and online, and she has occasionally dabbled in radio and television. She is a feminist, bibliophile and yogi who can be found tweeting about any of the above @LesleyLeRoux.