Review of ‘Finis’ by Angélique Jamail
by Marie Marshall
Amazon Kindle format
review by Marie Marshall
The best fantasies are the ones which have one foot in reality, in a world or society in which there is enough recognizable for a reader to be drawn in without having to have anything explained. A writer’s skill in doing so is necessary for the metaphor – the unreal, the less-than-recognisable that nonetheless stands for something in our own world – to take hold and be convincing, and Angélique Jamail’s skill is apparent from the very beginning of Finis.
We instantly enter a familiar world where work is tedious, landlords are mean, family is disapproving, neighbourhoods are patrolled by gangs, and where to be different is to be in danger. But in his corner office, the boss is a monster, quite literally a monster capable of goring any secretary who misses a staff meeting. In an environment where to be recognised as fully human one also has to be fully animal, one wonders just how bizarre the Minotaur of legend must have been if ‘Somewhere in Crete a maze is missing its pet’! Similar in feel to the way Philip Pullman’s characters develop a companion ‘dæmon’ as they mature, humans in Jamail’s story take on important aspects of members of the animal kingdom, until they are a fusion of the two. People who never develop this full nature are referred to as ‘plain’.
Elsa, Jamail’s protagonist is a ‘Plain One’, enduring reactions from her colleagues and superiors that range from pity, through discrimination, to bullying, and meeting little better from her immediate family. Even her cat wants to claw and bite her, and in fact is the only one who (spoiler alert! from now on they come thick and fast) actually understands her true nature from the beginning. Jamail’s portrayal of her nagging, unsympathetic father is convincing…
When Elsa doesn’t muster the same enthusiasm as the rest of the family, her father asks what her problem is.
“Dad, you know I can’t swim – “
“No, you won’t swim,” he grouses. “There’s a difference.”
This is technically true. Elsa chooses not to submerge herself in vats of acid too.
as is her mother’s fretful ‘Why doesn’t she ever go out? Why doesn’t she ever bring friends over at the holidays? Is she ever going to get married?’ The only member of Elsa’s family with whom she has any affinity is her cousin Gerard – “We both like seashells and hot chocolate”.
A tantalising ichthyological theme runs through the story like a bright thread – an aquarium, tuna sandwiches, references to water everywhere, even the punning title of the story and the last word on the page – loading the narrative with proleptic irony at every turn. Suddenly a clue comes, a newspaper story about the possible appearance of a Phoenix. Perhaps this is how Elsa will develop, with a rebirth in fire, and perhaps this explains her fear of water. But this is partly a red herring (!), although for Elsa it does suggest that maybe her own rebirth means surrendering to the very element that she fears. Eventually she becomes – what? A fish? A mermaid? Her transformation is left less than clear, but for her it is satisfying, it is an ending and a beginning. The conclusion is open-ended, and it almost leaves the reader with a feeling of unease. The problems of plain-ness have not gone away in Elsa’s world simply because she has escaped it, and the point of story has suddenly become her comfortable conformity.
Any niggles I have with the execution of this story are minor. For example, the process of change is referred to as ‘blossoming’, which to my mind is floral rather than faunal, and therefore less than appropriate. Overall it is a lesson in how to write from a point of ‘otherness’. It is short, but just the right length to carry readers and keep attention along a fairly simple narrative. Very worth reading, if my spoilers haven’t given the game away.