It’s been a long time between drinks for Justine Ettler. Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, Ettler’s previous novel, was released in 1996, and her debut prior to that, The River Ophelia, saw her heralded as a star of ’90s grunge lit alongside the likes of Andrew McGahan and Linda Jaivin. Her new novel, Bohemia Beach, is an ambitious and flawed attempt to connect addiction with personal, intergenerational and national post-traumatic stress disorder, while also referencing the Gothic Brontës and Kundera, among others.
Bohemia Beach is the story of Catherine Bell, an alcoholic, internationally famous concert pianist, as she wakes from a dream-filled coma in a hospital in London. How did she get there? She remembers back to the bender from hell in Prague, teetering on the edge of professional and personal disaster. Her previous concert was a shocker – Cathy was so pissed she fell off the front of the stage and then woke “in the American ambassador’s residence in bed with two guys I didn’t know”. She lost a lucrative recording deal and is on the verge of being dumped by her long-suffering agent. Now the biggest concert of her life, her professional last chance, is just days away in New York. She’s newly separated from her husband, and her terminally ill mother, Czech-born Odette, has absconded from her own London hospital. Cathy’s sure she’s seen Odette out of the corner of her eye, lurking here in Prague.
Cathy’s also just met and already fallen in love with smouldering dissolute playwright Tomas (who calls Cathy by her middle name, Tereza – less Wuthering Heights, more The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Tomas is possibly also sleeping with sexy lap dancer and former sex slave Anna. He’s also 50 to Cathy’s 25, and there’s something strange about his reactions whenever Cathy mentions her mother, who is 46. They were both ballet dancers; did Tomas know her mother in the years of communist rule? Tomas’s friends are also weird, as if they know something Cathy doesn’t. It’s only her “Bosnian refugee guru”, Nelly, whom she trusts, and Cathy pays her extravagantly for both in-person and telephone coaching and advice.
Ettler plants her flag early, in this melding of the personal and the political. Music features heavily due to Cathy’s work, and carries some of the thematic burden, but the true symphony of Cathy’s life is her drinking. Nelly neatly sums up Cathy’s problems as deriving from her “...generations of trauma on both a personal and a national scale ... history of relationships, all those addicts and abusive men. That whole Stockholm syndrome thing.”
The tone is weighty and serious throughout, but the character of Cathy is problematic. From the perspective of the story it’s hard to understand Ettler’s large cast trying, with varying degrees of success and self-interest, to either save Cathy from drinking herself to death, or else falling hopelessly in love with her at first sight. Cathy is utterly charmless and pretty dim, without the smallest amount of charisma that one might expect in a professional performer covering up a life-threatening alcoholism.
On a deeper level, as a narrator she’s self-aware for most of the book, despite being smashed or hungover. She has clear insight even as she rises on unsteady feet, when she’s drunk, when she’s “Quietly stonkered, the coke and booze buzzing around inside me in a satisfying way …” and when the coke focus starts to fade – all narrated in present tense. Deluded and/or deranged first-person narrators are a highwire act: think Pi Patel, Humbert Humbert or the narrator of Fight Club. Despite Cathy’s extreme substance and personality issues, for most of the novel she’s in control, sharply observing her own chaotic descent. She’s also aware of her motivations. “I know, I know,” Cathy says, in response to Nelly’s blunt assessment. “Alcoholism is a serious disease, I drink to relieve my PTSD, I know all that ...” This knowing quality makes for a strangely distant narration, despite the conceit that we’re inside Cathy’s head. When Cathy thinks, “I’m totally fucking screwed, I might as well enjoy myself – right?” or “This whole conversation is stressing me out ...”, it seems as if she’s reciting and contextualising the story for the benefit of the reader, rather than living it.
As the energy of the story and the pressure on Cathy increases, she loses her pet mouse, Mouse (significance to follow) and Prague is hit by its worst floods in 150 years. There are more parties and more clubs as Cathy’s life becomes that variety of dream where, no matter how hard you try, that thing you’re trying to achieve remains persistently and maddeningly out of reach. Despite her awareness of her PTSD, she’s incurious as to the singular event behind it and somehow astonished by her eventual diagnosis. There’s no chance of Ettler’s allusions being missed; not the literary (“They’re these comic books about the concentration camps. Maus as in M-A-U-S”) and not the political. Yet despite all this highfalutin window dressing, Bohemia Beach is at heart a straightforward romance novel. Cathy’s psychiatrist/psychotherapist, Edgar, reminds her “of a romantic hero in a nineteenth-century novel; all he needs is a vast estate, a dark family secret and he’d be perfect”. Will Cathy end up with good guy Edgar, who falls in love with her faster than you can say “medical ethics”? Or with sexy bad boy Tomas, who has both a vast estate and a dark family secret?
Cathy’s father, a Czech literature professor, pops up to remind us that “The Unbearable Lightness of Being is essentially about a love triangle. A beautiful, funny but ultimately tragic love triangle involving the hopelessly amoral Tomas, the long-suffering Tereza and the femme fatale, Sabina ...” And earlier, Tomas tells Cathy what he thinks of her Kundera namesake. “I didn’t really like any of the characters,” he tells her. “I was especially annoyed by the Tereza character, I found her weak and kind of pathetic. No offence …”
None taken. LS
Transit Lounge, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 5, 2018 as "Justine Ettler, Bohemia Beach". Subscribe here.