As if the present days weren’t bad enough, the title of Sarah Bernstein’s bracing debut novel heralds the arrival of further disaster and unrest. But don’t let that put you off. The Coming Bad Days is a startling and inventive piece of work about the absurdity and difficulty of being alive.
The plot can be summarised in a few lines. An unnamed female protagonist of unspecified age moves to an unnamed university town where she hopes to begin a new life, or at the very least forget her old one. Beyond this, not a lot happens. There are some scenes of college life that show her lack of enthusiasm about teaching and her PhD studies. There are a couple of elliptical therapy sessions, a friendship with a colleague, Clara, and a vaguely romantic liaison with a male lecturer.
The narrative may be light on plot but it is packed with moments of recognition of the female experience
Underpinning the present-day narrative, meanwhile, is a past mystery that sees the narrator without friends or family, but beyond some disquieting asides in later sections nothing really gets resolved.
What marks this debut out is the quality of the writing, a searing style that vividly portrays the experiences of a troubled woman. The clinical voice of the unnamed narrator is balanced with stylish prose – lucid, propulsive writing that is exquisitely crafted. Although this book deals with 21st-century preoccupations, the level of craft and formal tone hark to an earlier era. There is a Jamesian quality to the prose:
“I did not know how to ask the questions that would draw her out,” the narrator says of Clara, “but she spoke as if responding to this impulse of mine, outlining her work and her history and many other things besides, the details of which I would not remember but which nevertheless made an impression on me – of something entire, at once dark and luminous, like igneous rock, or the hollow of a wave.”
The Coming Bad Days is full of such descriptions. It is the kind of book where there is something to underline on every page. In her search to begin again, the narrator tells us: “I wanted something beyond and far away from the brute fact of the body and the sympathy and repulsion it evoked in turn. I wanted a state of grace.” The author’s background in poetry can be seen throughout, from descriptions of the natural world (“the moon hanging cold in the sky like the blade of a knife”) to sporadic lines of dialogue: “Life, he said, ran through me with a sound like teeth against steel.”
From Montreal, Bernstein now lives in Scotland where she teaches at Edinburgh University. Her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Tender, Contemporary Women's Writing, MAP and Cumulus. Now Comes the Lightning, a collection of poems, was published by Pedlar Press. Her novel is fittingly published by the Daunt Books Originals imprint, which includes the acclaimed debuts Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin, Indelicacy by Amina Cain, and the Booker Prize-shortlisted Real Life by Brandon Taylor.
As with Cain and Dusapin, Bernstein concerns herself with the role of women in society, both historically and in contemporary times. All three writers engage the reader with narratives that are highly original and unsettling. Alexandra Kleeman’s excellent You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is another reference point.
In The Coming Bad Days, the narrative may be light on plot but it is packed with moments of recognition of the female experience. This comes through in the relationship between the narrator and Clara, whose zest for life acts as a foil to the protagonist’s inertia. When a sexual assault in a bar causes a rift in the friendship, the narrator relates it in bleak, unforgettable terms: “One pursued the life of the mind only to find one’s own face pressed up against the looking glass. The promised enlightenment was always just out of reach, the brute fact of our bodies reminding us we would always only be seen as women, reminding us that the universal was not universal and that transcendence was not for us.”
The style of the book won’t be for everyone. Deliberately long paragraphs affect pace, but the deadpan insights delivered with the driest of humours, so dry that sometimes you wonder if it’s a joke at all, help to speed things up. On teaching at the university: “I did not fraternise with students outside of the cold seminar rooms except during my office hours, from which they often left crying.” Elsewhere we are told, “People loved an irregular trajectory so long as it ended well.”
Bernstein is too clever a writer to give her story its own happy ending, but there is at least a hint of hope that the coming days for her characters may not turn out so badly after all.