In Joanna Horton’s debut novel ‘Between You and Me’, readers are pulled into the inner lives of Elisabeth and Mari, friends and recent graduates of a prestigious unnamed Queensland university, after they meet the enigmatic professor, Jack. Over five years, Elisabeth and Mari’s worlds are inextricably interwoven and drifting apart as they realise their lives have ultimately been shaped and manipulated by their first encounter with Jack. The apparent meaninglessness of everyday rituals, experiences and encounters is cracked open, exposing the human condition of being simultaneously enthralled and repulsed by our connections to others.
Horton stages two equally compelling and complex (yet not necessarily likeable) young women on the brink of beginning adult life. In the primary part of the novel, Mari and Elisabeth are navigating a dazzling world familiar to anyone in their twenties: they are sexually explorative, conscious of gaps in privilege and live in share houses pumped with alcohol and the occasional drug. Horton’s writing is so vivid, paying close attention to Australian youth culture, that the lives of Mari and Elisabeth feel like they are unravelling around you in reality, lives belonging to people you know personally. Thus, Horton creates a unique setting that is both familiar and strangely intimate.
Shifting between Elisabeth’s first-person narration and Mari’s third-person narration, we are drip-fed nuggets of information about the fragility and complexities lurking beneath a so-called picturesque friendship. Elisabeth and Mari’s inner accounts after meeting Jack at their graduation celebrations depict a relationship of rivalry, secrets and disconnections. There are moments where this comes to alarming fruition: Elisabeth fantasises about drowning Mari; Mari knowingly betrays Elisabeth by engaging in a heated affair with Jack; Elisabeth refuses to support Mari as she experiences postpartum depression. In this sense, these friendship dynamics feel deeply humanistic, involving women who are unabashedly flawed.
Horton effectively prompts readers to know what to expect and be surprised by these plot points. Her writing voice somehow always feels one step ahead of the reader, drip-feeding insights into the characters’ lives that make readers second-guess where the story is really heading. The tension between Mari and Elisabeth is tightened and then eased within a short space of time, almost feeling jarring. The climatic point between Elisabeth and Mari feels inevitable, but also shocking and out-of-character.
The dichotomies between the two women are perpetuated by Jack, who is and also isn’t the antagonist in the novel. The novel becomes cumbersome and almost frustrating when Jack keeps going back and forth between Elisabeth and Mari, continuously pitting the women against each other (and they let him, which feels odd). But he also seems to be written as a constant (and sometimes positive) source of support and presence in both women’s lives, confusing his character arc.
Despite a sophisticated exploration into the complexities of human nature, the ending feels underwhelming. There is no exact moment of resolution between Elisabeth and Mari except for Mari’s keeping of old videos of the two on a USB stick. I don’t mind an open-ended ending, but was this meant to be symbolic? Hopeful? I really don’t know. Unless Horton has a sequel in the works, it feels like there is no point of final satisfaction or direction.
Nevertheless, Horton’s debut provides refreshing insights into the strengths and flaws of people and relationships, positing the fact that these are never as clear-cut as they appear. What Horton effectively describes is an ultimately fine line between loyalty, desire and morality, all of which are important ingredients in how we carve out our own lives. With this in mind, ‘Between You and Me’ is a thoughtful, deliciously-fickle and fresh take on female friendships that readers will relish and appreciate.