Review of Yellow by Janni Visman

I wrote the following review of Yellow by Janni Visman for a blog that I used to keep.

Yellow is the colour of the yellow-bellied cowards in Shakespear’s plays. It’s also the colour of the wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel, in which a woman lying her bedroom, resting from depression watches the contours of the paper crawl across the wall. It’s “one of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin,” writes Gilman. In the end the patterns take over the woman’s mind and she too ends up crawling, like a madwoman, tearing the paper off the wall until her husband John comes home to find his wife has gone completely loopy.

The text has since become a permanent fixture of feminist and modernist modules in universities all over. But I do digress. I’m writing about a wholly different novel. Visman’s tale is not unlike The Yellow Wallpaper. Her own heroine, Stella, is also trapped within her home. But in a way it’s a self-imposed prison sentence. Living in a well-organised, spacious apartment, she runs her aromatherapy business from home. She has a telly, Internet access, a loving cat and a man to do her daily shopping. Her days run like clockwork, and there’s even a sense of pleasure in this woman’s way of living. Everything is in it’s right place, until her boyfriend, Ivan, starts to offer clues about his past, and Stella gives into the curiosity. Who is the mysterious ex-girlfriend who left him behind, and why is she taking possession of their relationship?

Slowly everything starts to fall apart, and sensing the disintegration of order within her own home, it seems that even within the small borders she has created for her own space, the one place she calls her own within a vast, vast world she cannot bear to enter, the walls are closing in. And every now and then a smell of gas. That is the yellow.

This book is short, concise and straight to the point. It’s set within the limits of an apartment (diagram drawn out for your reference) and occurs in the mere space of a week. From domestic bliss to chaos. Change is all around us, and that is one thing we cannot escape. Sometimes, even in a place that is so planned and so ordered that nothing could possibly go wrong. Even when Stella maintains a professional distance from her clients, a controlled mistrust of her sister (the whiff of previous betrayal hangs in the air ever so slightly), and a carefully co-ordinated power game against her other half. Even then, doors get knocked down, and lives change, irrevocably so. What then? What thoughts does a woman go through when even her own walls threaten to destroy her?

If anything, Visman’s well-paced, controlled narrative throws up many of the same questions posed by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in 1892. However, in this case Stella does not wait for a husband to unlock the door and watch her crawl. She hatches a plan, and she adapts it every time the story changes. Undoubtedly she too is mad, and her fate unknown but read to the end and you’ll find that Yellow is not all about cowardice, but change after all.