By Therese Anne Fowler
Two Roads, $29.99
''Which of my many possible lives did I want to define me? Which one could I have?'' wonders a fictionalised Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald (author of The Great Gatsby) in this beautifully nuanced and sensitive first-person portrayal of a woman pushed to breaking point.
Zelda Fitzgerald has wafted through the pages of literature before, fictionalised in her husband's novels, and there have also been filmic portrayals, such as Midnight in Paris, in which the Fitzgeralds and contemporaries haunt the city. Therese Anne Fowler here builds upon the letters, biographies and work itself of the Fitzgeralds, one of the most infamous literary couples of their age, to show Zelda's conflicted lives - dancer, writer, painter, mother, wife - and how those possible lives were tragically destroyed.
Zelda Sayre begins life in Montgomery, Alabama, where in her late teens, just out of high school, she is feeling ''so light'', perhaps due to ''the energy of wartime, the sensation that all of time was faster now, and fleeting''. It is here, in 1918, she fatefully meets young army lieutenant and aspiring writer Fitzgerald, who is captivated by her and tempts her to follow his fickle fortunes to New York; they embark on a whirlwind life there and in Paris, the French Riviera, and Hollywood - although the most compelling setting is not geographical but their psychological and emotional hinterlands.
The narrative is controlled skilfully, with tight pacing and a well-crafted structure that succeed, paradoxically, in allowing Fowler to brilliantly depict the Fitzgeralds as they spiral out of control and lose all structure to their peripatetic lives. Scott is shown to be an increasing slave to his alcohol addiction and Fowler is particularly adept at sketching the stifling societal pressures on Zelda to conform to the role of mother and wife at the subordination of her own ambitions. Her frustration at her own lack of agency is palpable as she asks herself ''the question that troubled me most: was it even really up to me?''
The theme of escapism is compellingly drawn out and, as the characters attempt to flee the wreckage of their lives, their story becomes inescapable for the reader. Dance becomes an ''obsessive escape'' for Zelda, who is ''unable to exist in the world if I didn't persist''. She meets some success when she is offered the chance to be a professional dancer in Naples, an opportunity Fitzgerald crushes, thus plunging her further into illness and discord with her own life.
Alcohol seeps through the narrative as it curdles through the veins of the protagonists, who are increasingly incapacitated by the substance they believe helps them. After his early intoxicating success, Scott, who can command $4000 for a story, becomes stuck on writing a novel to follow The Great Gatsby and ''drinks vodka before, during and after his afternoon writing sessions''. Likewise, Zelda picks up this habit: ''The vodka is a writing technique I've borrowed from Scott''. Another key factor to their downfall is the toxic arrival of their nemesis - Ernest Hemingway.
This is a devastating story of love turning into loathing in a destructive marriage. ''We glared at each other with the kind of hatred that comes from being deliberately wounded in one's softest, most vulnerable places by a person who used to love you passionately,'' Zelda writes. The rapid disintegration of two promising lives is a painful tale.
''To right myself, I would write myself,'' observes the perceptive Zelda, for whom writing is ''a complete escape into the depths of my imagination''. However, although Zelda produces her own writing - stories such as A Millionaire's Girl - her work is published under her husband's name, except for a novel he heavily edits. She is eventually forbidden from writing, thus unable to ''right herself''.
''The terror has seeped into my skin, making my entire body buzz with the knowledge that I am no longer in full control,'' Zelda laments. As she loses touch with reality, the world becomes a ''waking dream'' and she has the ''horrible sensation, just before my collapse, that the world is running out of oxygen''.
The viewpoint of a writers' wife has been conjured in the novel The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which depicted Hemingway's Hadley, and it is a valuable perspective to have. Z is both an acute observation of the Jazz Age and its legacy, and a powerful portrait of a mind's torture as it becomes fatally at odds with its environment. With a new film version of The Great Gatsby imminent, this novel is a splendid reminder of the blood, sweat and tears that went into producing exquisite works of art.