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Review: 'My Dearest Jonah'

Matthew Crow's epistolary second novel proves a thoughtful work with flashes of brilliance.
William Humphries on Sunday 29th April 2012
Photograph: Legend Press

Matthew Crow’s second novel, My Dearest Jonah, is placed firmly within the tradition of epistolary writing. The reader is presented with an exchange of letters between Jonah, a reformed murderer, and Verity, a stripper. Both characters survive along the periphery of society, with meaningless jobs providing the only impetus to continue living.

Introduced via a pen-pal scheme, the two protagonists have never met and yet appear to share a platonic love that transcends the relationships that they develop in their own separate worlds. Indeed, as Crow tells me during our interview, 'The two characters live essentially for and because of one another’.

By placing the action of the novel in America – unlike Crow’s first novel, Ashes, which is set in northeast England – Crow allows his characters to feel the force of separation, adrift within the wilderness of such a vast country: ‘I chose America because of the space it afforded. The idea was that both characters were lost in just about every way imaginable, and in all honesty I just couldn’t imagine two characters being that separated in England, as it seems you can get anywhere in under three hours’.

As Jonah and Verity begin to ingratiate themselves into the societies that they have adopted, their interactions with reality – as opposed to the pen and paper fiction they have created for themselves – begin to destabilise their lives. Verity’s friendship with Eve, the most sympathetic character in the novel and the most finely wrought, descends into a fight for survival when the mysterious J collides with their happy, albeit chaotic, existence. Equally, the return of Jonah’s past and his inability to shake off the sinister machinations of Michael, turn his own life on its head.

Bubbling beneath the surface are questions of religion, which Crow readily acknowledges: ‘I was thinking a lot about religion when I wrote the novel, particularly the Bible, in that like Verity and Jonah’s setup, millions of people’s lives are still being run on a piece of text’. The unquestioned reality of the protagonists’ letters is exposed as problematic in the final dénouement of the novel.

There are flashes of brilliance in My Dearest Jonah when Crow loses himself and allows the true voice of his characters to speak through. Though these moments are few – a concern for a novel attempting to capture the voice of such idiosyncratic characters – there is a sense of maturation in Crow’s style that is laudable.

When we hear the voice of Verity – an appropriately chosen name for a character who treads the threshold between truth and deception so freely – and not the author, the novel find its way into the imagination. It is no doubt difficult for a writer as eloquent as Crow to pare down his language to suit his characters; however, such an exercise would have allowed us to hear beyond Crow’s own distinctly English voice. A sensitively used American idiom, devoid of cliché, and an effort to differentiate the narrative voices of his two protagonists would have elevated the work and vindicated his choice of setting.

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