Books

Shirley Barrett
The Bus on Thursday

When Eleanor gets her dream job as a teacher in Talbingo, a hamlet in the Snowy Mountains, it seems as if all her problems are solved. Clean air and country life are just what she needs to complete her breast cancer recovery, with bonus respite from her indifferent friends and the kindly doctor she tried to pash. Her best friend, Sally, has gone full Bridezilla, and her ex, Josh, has got a new girlfriend – “Delores of the double-D cups” – in record time, and everyone else is implying she brought cancer on herself: “Well, you have always been a stresser.”

“Am I so despicable a person that even my own body can’t stand me?” she wonders.

What begins as an anti-rom-com takes a turn as our sharp-tongued narrator’s old Corolla ascends winding roads, arriving in an isolated wilderness straight out of The Shining. Shirley Barrett takes as liberally from horror film classics such as The Exorcist as parodies such as Idle Hands and The Cabin in the Woods, twisting the genre’s conventions with verve: a missing predecessor, creepy kids, disembodied hands, cars without drivers, overzealous priests and a suspiciously handsome suitor who rocks up on Eleanor’s doorstep.

As a filmmaker, Barrett is best known for the Caméra d’Or-winning Love Serenade in 1996, in which she also skewered small-town Australia. Her literary debut Rush Oh!, a historical novel about turn-of-the-century whaling, was decidedly cinematic, as is The Bus on Thursday. The return of her offbeat humour is welcome – even if the madcap can overwhelm narrative coherence.

Written in the form of unpublished blog posts, Eleanor’s strong voice is given free rein, with outré descriptions such as her post-op breast looking “a bit sad and deflated like a beach ball after the dog’s been at it”. The convention is a tad flimsy, however, leading to dated internet-speak such as “totes inappropes”. And why isn’t her blogging hindered by Talbingo’s dodgy internet?

Despite some squeaky gears, The Bus on Thursday is a fun ride, bolstered by moving insights into illness and mortality: “Everyone expects you to have mysteriously acquired some kind of wisdom out of the experience, and if you haven’t, then it’s a personal failing.” Eleanor is one of a “never-ending tide of women” blamed for causing her body’s betrayals through stress, diet, moral shortcomings, wearing underwire bras or, indeed, inviting in a demon.  TM

Allen & Unwin, 304pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 6, 2018 as "Shirley Barrett, The Bus on Thursday". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: TM