Poignant and Necessary: Aidan Coleman Reviews ‘Vanishing Point’ by Jeri Kroll

 Vanishing Point by Jeri Kroll Puncher & Wattmann 2014

vanishing_pointVanishing Point by Jeri Kroll is Puncher & Wattmann’s first foray into the territory of the verse novel and could prove a shrewd business move. For not only is the story – a teenage girl’s battle with anorexia – topical but the novel has plenty to interest adolescent and adult readers alike. Teacher’s notes have already been prepared.

The novel’s protagonist, Diana, has a complicated relationship with her family: an often-absent father, a well-meaning but ineffectual fundamentalist mother, and a brother who has Down syndrome and with whom Diana has a strained but tender bond: ‘Some nights I tuck my brother into bed. / His honey almond eyes gleam and dim. / His moon face shimmers in …………………………………………………………….the dark.’

Friendless and at the margins of high school life, when the story begins, Diana’s consolation is staying with her grandmother in the Flinders Ranges. On one of these visits Diana meets Clara, who introduces her to horse-riding. It becomes an enduring passion that she shares with Conor, the son of a widowed horse-trainer, newly arrived from Ireland. The voices of Diana and Conor are shot through with equine imagery, which becomes a satisfying conceit. Take Diana’s early description of her not-yet-boyfriend: ‘The way he moves reminds me of that colt / by grandma’s place nearly ten years back – / free and easy. What a leggy beauty, // and so is Conor striding to the bar’. In a later poem, Conor compares the memories he banish to rats creeping back to the feed bins. Despite the close bond they forge, the reader wonders if their relationship will survive Diana’s obsessive illness and hospitalisation.

The narrative is handled gracefully: often pacey, but, in other places, catching its breath, to zoom in on telling details. The voice of protagonist, Diana, is direct and immediate but also ironic and world-weary. The novel begins: ‘I hate things that reflect: / mirrors, windows, pools of water, / father’s flashy car, / the eyes of that slim boy / in my old school – / ice blue, ice cold’. Most of the poetry is in free-verse, but when Kroll deploys the resources of formalism, the voice is no less convincing.

The embedded dialogue – an area where many verse novels fall short – has an easy fluidity, as this exchange between Diana and her boyfriend, Conor: ‘We’re nearly at the gates. I slow and turn / ‘Would you go home? / Ireland I mean. // ‘Father wouldn’t. I’d hate to leave him here,’ / Conor shades his eyes. / ‘Mother’s there for him. // He’d miss her something fierce.’/ His voice sounds anything but. Such dialogue is rarely unconvincing and, as in dialogue for the stage, is usually succinct and heightened in its diction. It’s unsurprising that the work has already been adapted for stage performances in Washington and Ohio.

Mythology, which acts as a consolation for Diana, functions in symbolic ways. Appropriately, celebrity culture is invoked, most interestingly is the use of the name Diana, both the Greek goddess and doomed royal: ‘When I was born, Diana was a princess, / an English myth my mother loved. / But hunters know the fate of prey. / Stalked, snapped at, caught on film / finally bailed up, dispatched.’

Kroll is best known as a lyric poet – her New & Selected Poems were published recently by Wakefield Press – and many of the poems in Vanishing Point retain the lyric intensity of that book: ‘I feel transparent, the wind whistling through… / I am no one thing / but muscle and tears / sweat and breath / I could die this way. / I could live this way, too’. (Second Flight). The title poem before Diana’s hospitalisation is starkly Plathian: ‘Rare as snow in the hills, / I drift past and you gaze / at my lightness and grace. / You glimpse the world through me’. In other places there is a loosening, often into prose: ‘The misty morning grass that crushed sweet under the horse’s hooves … Our land bordered a lake there. I remember how the swans scattered in the dawn when I hauled the stroppy geldings past.’ (Conor: Climate Change). The word ‘stroppy’ is an example of how a well-chosen adjective can still delight in post-Victorian poetry.

Vanishing Point is a : book with has all the hallmarks of a senior English set-text about it and there’s plenty to relish for adult readers as well, who are the people – let’s face it! – who make such decisions.

 – Aidan Coleman

Besides poetry, Aidan Coleman writes reviews, speeches, and Shakespeare textbooks. His most recent book, Asymmetry (Brandl & Schlesinger), was shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature and the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards.

Vanishing Point is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/vanishing-point

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