The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D* is a frustrating novel. The prose is embedded with substance and provocation, but weakness in the transmission strips the necessary engagement to compel. The plot is simple: mum-of-three Elizabeth dies in a plane crash, leaving a trunk of journals to her friend Kate. The bequest itself insults Elizabeth’s husband Dave, and the act of reading them while on family vacation (bafflingly) causes friction between Kate and her husband Chris. Kate learns that the Elizabeth in the journals is vastly different to the friend she knew and loved, raising the question of how well anyone really knows anybody, and highlighting the irrelevance of communication against keeping secrets.
The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D is a commendable and promising entry into fiction for author Nichole Bernier, but her technique is a problem. Bernier’s work feels autobiographical and self-indulgent, borrowing heavily from personal experience at the expense of investigative research and stringent arbitration. Save for some resonating thematics and affective humanism, this would be the kind of narcissistic exercise that every virgin novelist should be told to purge out of themselves then sentence to the bottom drawer to make way for the ‘real’ penmanship.
In Bernier’s case the result is a cache of characters that feel irrational and under-developed, with little separation between Kate and Elizabeth, and Chris and Dave, who may as well be the same people. Likewise the lack of delineation within Elizabeth’s journals where her 13-year-old voice is identical to her almost-forty one. Heavy use of italics to represent Elizabeth’s diary entries becomes cumbersome and tiring for the reader, and alliteration such as “Piper picked up her putter and swung sloppily” and “sheer curtains created crosshatch designs on the whitewashed wood” are good illustrations of the clunkiness of the writing. The fundamentals of formula, structure, and flow of a great novel are all there, but it lacks the revisionary strength of something that has been conceived, devised, worked, kneaded, reworked, left to rest then lovingly tended.
Having said that, the writing does originate from a place of sweetness and sentiment, and the mild slowness with which Bernier unwraps her plot does maintain the steady one-foot-in-front-of-the-other pace that feels a lot like the tentativeness of grieving. As a non-taxing weekend read, The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D is perfectly adequate, even if the all-American post-911 paranoia versus life’s-too-short antecedent is a little cringeworthy. At least the integrity of the book matches the title: The Unfinished Journals of Elizabeth D feels … unfinished.
*Also published as “The Unfinished Works of Elizabeth D”