Ellen Millar is an actress. A rising star with everything going for her. New flat, newly-single, new jobs lined up. She has the key to life. What could go wrong? How about a charming Irishman with more baggage than an airport.
Jane Slavin is an actress and novelist who works regularly with Big Finish, mostly in the Doctor Who range. Last month, Big Finish announced that Slavin will become a new regular companion opposite Tom Baker. As police officer Ann Kelso, a role created specifically for her, Slavin will star in the eighth series of ‘The Fourth Doctor Adventures’.
‘Writing on the Water’ is Slavin’s debut novel, first published in 1998.
When Ellen meets Aedan, a handsome director with a warm Irish accent, a brief and intense romance ensues. Unfortunately, Aedan refuses to let go of his past and it won’t let go of him. So Ellen is dragged along an emotional roller coaster that both strengthens and weakens her in equal measure. What can Ellen do when promises were made that she intends to keep?
Big Finish Productions have given this story the audiobook treatment with Slavin reading her work. It probably goes without saying that a seasoned actor reading a story she knows intimately means the narration is excellent. Slavin performs Ellen’s inner turmoil with skill and her mastery of accents ensures a heavily populated story can be followed. Though without the text, it was occasionally tricky to know when Ellen had said something or merely thought it.
The Key to Life
As Slavin notes in the acknowledgements, at least one of the characters is based on a real person. Indeed there are several plot points that, based on only cursory research, seem to be partly autobiographical. This probably goes towards explaining how Slavin manages to render the feeling of heartbreak so perfectly. Writing the character to be in her mid-twenties was a good move to make Ellen’s obsessive behaviour more believable. She’s young and hasn’t got the emotional ties and history that Aedan has. Ellen’s feelings are intense and free, Aedan has to temper his actions with what will hurt the fewest people. A lot of interesting themes are drawn from that mismatch and ultimately it’s down to an age difference.
Being a tragi-comic-romantic-drama-character piece, this is definitely unique in Big Finish’s catalogue. And, at just shy of eight hours long, it’s one of the more demanding listens. It’s easy to follow though and, despite a lot of location changes, flows very naturally. Aedan comes and goes throughout the story and quickly establishes a routine of disrupting Ellen’s recovery at crucial moments. Not only does this keep the plot moving, it helps to emphasise Ellen’s addiction for this man.
Slavin contrasts that with Ellen’s career – something else she likely drew inspiration from her own life for. Ellen has always wanted to be an actress and loves the work. So whereas her love for Aedan happens quickly and intensely, her love of acting is slow and deep. The narrator shoves it to the background when Aedan’s around. And, when he’s gone, Ellen dives into work to help her recover from the damage he leaves. It’s a positive message of finding personal fulfilment but tragic for how easily it gets undone. Once again, I think Slavin draws on her own experience to enhance the story and it absolutely pays off.
As I mentioned before, there are a lot of supporting characters in this story. However, most enter the story quickly and leave just as swiftly. Only one really gets something resembling an arc but even that’s just a mention. But I think this is another example of Slavin writing for the age of the character. Anyone who’s been through their twenties knows it’s a time when friends naturally drift away. Promises to keep in touch that never happen. New babies for people you never even knew were expecting. Giving the story this background noise of loose character arcs was a great way to enhance the realism of the Ellen’s story.
Sound and Direction
Technically, this is a serviceable release directed by Lisa Bowerman. Sound quality is perfect and there was no incidental music or sound effects that could have distracted. When reviewing full-text audiobooks, we give one score for Jane Slavin’s original story and another for the audio production values.
Story – 7/10
Audio – 9/10
Have you ever loved someone enough to die for them? Or even kill for them…?
Ellen Millar is an independent soul. An actress whose star is in the ascendant, she also has a partially decorated flat, a mountain of debt and some seriously good friends to sustain her. Into the equation of her life comes Aedan. An Irishman. Their attraction is instant; their affair intense and all-consuming. This five-day courtship is the prelude to a life together until Aedan returns to Ireland and realises that some emotional entanglements are impossible to untie.
Jane Slavin conveys the agony of a broken heart and a restless mind with shocking clarity. In Ellen Millar, she has created a candid, witty and uncompromising narrator whose addiction to one man takes her close to madness.
Praise for Writing on the Water:
“An astonishing novel… Brilliant on the theme of obsessional love; funny, sexy, painful and totally readable.” Fay Weldon
“Jane Slavin’s first novel has more pace and panache than any other fiction I have read this year…Slavin writes cleverly about sex and touchingly about the displacement activities of the broken-hearted. Clearly, she is indecently talented.” Rose Tremain (Daily Telegraph, Book of the Year)
“A vivacious first novel tracing the progress of an independent young woman’s descent into obsession.” Sally Feldman (Pick of the Paperbacks, Good Housekeeping.)
“A powerful and sometimes funny study of obsessional love and how corrosive it can be.” Sally Morris (Sunday Mirror, Book of the Week)
“Painful, sad and funny by turn, Writing on the Water charts the course of obsessional love which drives Ellie to the edge of madness. Stunning.” (Prima Choice – Five Great reads)
Writing on the Water contains adult material and may not be suitable for younger listeners
Written By: Jane Slavin
Directed By: Lisa Bowerman
Read by Jane Slavin