Online prisoner

01 March 2020 - 00:00 By Mila de Villiers

Published in the Sunday Times (01/03/2020)

Adults ****
Emma Jane Unsworth
HarperCollins, R305

To Clarendon or to Valencia? To hashtag or not to hashtag? To like and comment or just to like? To use "mystique" or "mystery"? To post now or to post tomorrow? To unfollow the ex or not to unfollow the ex? These are the sincere (read: anxiety-inducing) questions universally grappled with by social media aficionados and novices alike. And British novelist Emma Jane Unsworth is all too cognisant thereof.

In Adults Unsworth introduces the reader to Jenny McLaine, a recently single 35-year-old London-based Instagram votary and columnist for online feminist magazine, Foof. The title of her column? The "Intense Modern Woman". For intense her life is.

Coping with micro-aggressive WhatsApps from gluten-free lodgers while ensuring that her 'Gram game remains on point - "I check my likes once more (forty-two, I should really kill myself)" - is no easy feat.

Yes, aspects of Jenny nail the superficial and stereotypical Gen Y social media-phile, but never at her expense. Unsworth is too perceptive an author and she deftly explores the human condition via a protagonist weathering out the damage that pseudo-dopamine-inducing addiction can cause to IRL relationships - while often having you want to exclaim: "OMG, same!"

Exhibit the following correspondence between Jenny and her closest friend, Kelly, a few weeks after Jenny had met her now-ex boyfriend. (Big-Deal alpha-male photographer, Art.)

"Just WhatsApped a screenshot. DISCUSS."
"Can I send you our last few emails to analyse the vibe?"
"This friendship is barely passing the Bechdel Test rn"

#RelatableContent, right?

Jenny's life takes a low-key Britney '07 turn and after mistakenly sending an angst-filled WhatsApp intended for Kelly to her mother, Carmen, her Weltschmerz escalates since Carmen takes it upon herself to travel to London to take care of her only daughter.

But the arrival of her mum, an eccentric former actress turned spiritual medium/death doula with a penchant for imbibing ("I have a very good relationship with all intoxicants. Much healthier than any human relationship I've ever had."), only adds to Jenny's woes.

Lorelai and Rory Gilmore these two ain't.

Think 16-year-old Jenny staging her own suicide in retaliation for Carmen leaving her behind over Christmas to holiday in the Bahamas with a new - still married - beau. EXTRA.

Yet Unsworth navigates their relationship with compassion and creates an empathetic character in Carmen, further reiterating the necessity of tangible, genuine connections with our fellow homo sapiens - be they family or friends. Her conflicted understanding and experience of blood relations aside, a part of Jenny both silently and overtly yearns for a family of her own.

This very much single '92 baby struggled to resonate with Jenny's maternal inclinations and aspiration to "settle down" and the passages examining that particular side of her psyche tended to lag because of it. Nonetheless, the darker and more complex nature of motherhood - and the questions surrounding it - made for a deliberative and poignant read.

In an age defined by an epidemic of loneliness, where "friendships" are forged via the internet and self-esteem depends on the external validation of an azoic audience, Unsworth has created a darkly comical critique-presented-as-contemporary-fiction of a society which has succeeded in consciously creating its own sentient Panopticon. The incarcerated and the surveillants? None but our online selves.

TL;DR? Adults is a #must. Credit me. @mila_se_kind