Elly McDonald

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Historical sex offences: the case of King Edward and the countess of Salisbury

The allegations still shock:

Come the night, when he had gone to bed in proper state, and he knew that the fine lady was in her bedchamber and that all her ladies were asleep and his gentlemen also, except his personal valets, he got up and told these valets that nothing must interfere with what he was going to do, on pain of death. So it was that he entered the lady’s chamber, then shut the doors of the wardrobe so that her maids could not help her, then he took her and gagged her mouth so firmly that she could not cry out more than two or three times, and then he raped her so savagely that never was a woman so badly treated; and he left her lying there all battered about, bleeding from the nose and the mouth and elsewhere, which was for her great damage and great pity. Then he left the next day without saying a word, and returned to London, very disgusted with what he had done.

The year is 1341. The chronicler is Jean Le Bel. The man is King Edward III of England. The woman is identified as Alice, Countess of Salisbury.

medieval-woman-with-roses

With “historical sexual abuse” and the #MeToo movement topical as I write, this tale of rape nearly seven centuries ago seems to me an intriguing case study in how rape by a powerful man in a past epoch has been recounted and responded to.

Let’s consider.

First, let’s take Jean Le Bel.

According to Wikipedia,

Jean Le Bel (c. 1290 – 15 February 1370) was a chronicler from Liege. His father, Gilles le Beal des Changes, was an alderman of Liege, where Jean himself was active.

Jean was one of the first chroniclers to write in French instead of Latin. He was a soldier and companion of Jean, Count de Beaumont and travelled with him to England and Scotland in 1327 [where he fought against the Scots in the Border Wars]. At the request of the duke, he wrote Vrayes Chroniques (“True Chronicles”), which recorded the events of the reign of Edward III. He is believed to be the first person to use interviews to confirm and supplement his facts.[citation needed] Jean gives as his reason for writing a desire to replace a certain misleading rhymed chronicle of the wars of Edward III by a true relation of his enterprises down to the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War. Jean Froissart was greatly influenced by him and borrowed from his texts. […]

In the matter of style Le Bel has been placed by some critics on the level of Froissart. His chief merit is his refusal to narrate events unless either he himself or his informant had witnessed them.

Reference – Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). “Lebel, Jean“. Encyclopædia Britannica. 16 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 349–350.

Jean lived to about age 80 and enjoyed a conspicuously prosperous lifestyle.

Jean_Le_Bel_right_provincial_palace_Liege

Statue of Jean Le Bel (right) – provincial palace at Liege

So, who witnessed this event who could have been Le Bel’s informant?

Presumably, one or more of King Edward’s personal valets; or someone in Edward’s retinue in whom a valet confided; or one or more of the ladies of the bedchamber, albeit they were seemingly asleep when the assault commenced.

Second, let’s consider Edward.

In late December 1341, the time of the alleged rape, King Edward III had recently turned 29 years old (born 13 November 1312). He had been crowned king at age 14 (1 February 1327), one week after his father Edward II was deposed. For three years he was a puppet king, with power in the hands of his mother Queen Isabella’s lover, Roger Mortimer. At 15 he was married to Philippa of Hainault (25 or 26 January 1328), following an 18-month betrothal. On 19 October 1330, just prior to his 18th birthday, Edward wrested power from Mortimer, through a coup led by Sir William Montagu.

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The young King Edward III of England pays homage to King Philip VI of France

Sir William was rewarded by being made earl of Salisbury, earl then being the highest rank of nobility in England after prince (‘duke’ at that time was a continental title, not yet in use in England). Sir William remained Edward’s closest friend and senior military commander till his death from tournament injuries in January 1344.

Edward’s marriage to Philippa was considered a great success. They were much the same age, met at about age 13, and hit it off from the outset. At the time of the alleged rape Philippa was five months pregnant with their eighth child, having already given birth to five sons. In total she birthed thirteen children, of whom six lived to have offspring: to them, we owe the Wars of the Roses (a.k.a. “the Cousins’ Wars).

Edward III funeral effigy head & shoulders, Westminster Abbey Mu

Edward III – mask for effigy

That said, across the previous year – 1340-41 – the royal marriage faced a crisis and Edward seems to have engaged in some uncharacteristic behaviours. Edward had been king from his teens and had many sexual liaisons; his enemies condemned his court as immoral, while his friends acknowledged their king enjoyed the company of ladies. No one expected Edward to be monogamous. Yet, three envoys entrusted with a letter to the pope written 18 November 1340 were instructed by King Edward to inform the pontiff that the archbishop of Canterbury, the senior churchman in England, had “spoken separately to me of my wife, and to my wife of me, in order that, if he were listened to, he might provoke us to such anger as to divide us forever”.

Worse, in his letter to the pope, Edward accuses the archbishop of Canterbury of wanting him dead, possibly of attempting to contrive his death.

The accusations against the archbishop of Canterbury arise from the archbishop’s lack of support for Edward’s wars in France, specifically his disapproval of the financial costs and his opposition to the massive taxes Edward levied to raise finance.

The issue within the marriage is more mysterious. Did Edward believe Philippa committed adultery? Could he have believed her seventh child, Edmund, was not his? Edward could not have fathered the child if the pregnancy went full-term, as the royal couple was separated, in Ghent and in Tournai, at the time conception must have taken place. But sixteen days premature is not implausible. If Edmund was premature and perhaps sickly, that could explain why he was not accorded the same honours as his elder brothers as the same young ages, why he lived in Philippa’s care longer than the others, and even, possibly, why his temperament was milder than his brothers’.

Or, was what the archbishop had to say not against Philippa but against Edward? Some misbehaviour beyond the expected infidelities? Some abuse or misuse of members of her household? Of female relatives?

Baptism_Edward_III_daughter_Isabella

Baptism of Edward III and Philippa’s daughter Isabella

Third: let’s look at the alleged rape victim.

Jean Le Bel names her as Alice, countess of Salisbury, wife of Edward’s great friend Sir William Montagu.

Except Sir William’s wife was Catherine.

In Jean Le Bel’s account, Alice, countess of Salisbury, is in her husband’s northern castle at Wark besieged by the Scots. Her nephew, the castle’s governor, apparently another William Montagu, escapes the siege, seeks out King Edward and his armies in Newcastle, and begs the king’s aid, which is forthcoming. King Edward has not seen the countess since her marriage and is publicly, conspicuously, struck by infatuation. The lady declines his overtures, tactfully. Subsequently he invites her and her husband to a great tournament in London, where she dresses in a subdued manner to attempt to deflect his attentions. Then Edward visits the castle in her husband’s absence and, when the countess continues to refuse him, he rapes her.

Which parts are attestable fact?

William Montagu, earl of Salisbury, was lord of the castle at Wark. In the summer of 1342 he was a prisoner of war in France. At that time, King Edward and his armies were engaged in Border War fighting in the immediate area of Wark. The earl did die just a few years later.

Which parts are wrong?

Sir William’s lady was Catherine. She did not have a nephew named William Montagu – but her 12 year-old son, the earl’s heir, was named William. (Le Bel claimed the couple had no heir.) The earl died in England, not fighting abroad. He did not abrogate his estates, his marriage and his liege lord.

Which parts are plausible?

After the earl’s release from imprisonment in France and his return to England, he and his wife almost certainly attended the king’s great feast in London that summer, which very likely included jousts.

Which parts just don’t sound right?

It’s improbable the countess of Salisbury would have resided in a border castle while warfare with the Scots was flaring.

Sir William and his countess had by 1342 been married 13 years. It seems improbable the king had never since the wedding seen his best friend’s wife. Catherine would have been about 38 and had six children by then, four of them girls. It’s not impossible a 38 year-old mother of six could be raped by a king. Cesare Borgia notoriously raped Caterina Sforza when she was 37 and the mother of eight children. But he’d just captured her castle, with her as the enemy commander. He was not her purported rescuer, and she was not married to his closest, long-time friend.

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Edward III with William Montagu and co-conspirators prepare to oust Mortimer

Can these discrepancies be reconciled?

Curiously, they can, to an extent.

Sir William was not married to an Alice and his countess did not have a nephew named William. But Sir William had a brother, Edward, and Edward Montagu married Alice of Norfolk, a cousin of the king’s, in 1338. King Edward had not seen Alice since her marriage; in 1342 she was 18 years old. Obviously, Alice Montagu did have a nephew named William Montagu – her brother-in-law the earl’s son and heir, Catherine’s eldest son. William Montagu was not old enough to be Wark Castle’s governor, but it’s plausible Edward Montagu might have been the castle’s governor. Edward Montagu might have been his nephew’s guardian. It’s plausible young William Montagu might have served in his uncle Edward’s household.

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William Montagu the younger, 2nd Earl of Salisbury

Jean Le Bel wrote his account about ten years after the alleged rape occurred, in about 1352. In January 1352, Alice Montagu was savagely beaten by her husband and his retainers and died from her injuries shortly after. She would have been perhaps 27 years old.

Was Alice of Norfolk killed by her husband for bringing his name into disrepute, for injuring his reputation? Was she killed because her cousin the king had sex with her, possibly raped her?

It’s tempting to surmise.

But caution is in order. Edward Montagu had a history of violent lawlessness. He had squeezed dry his wife’s substantial estates. She had given him four daughters but the male issue had died. Edward and several of his men were indicted for Alice’s killing but it appears only one henchman was convicted and he was subsequently pardoned. Edward Montagu was a veteran of the Battle of Crecy (1346), a famous English victory in the Hundred Years’ War with France. It’s probable his henchman were also Crecy “heroes”.

It’s quite possible Edward Montagu’s murder of his wife Alice was unrelated to any alleged sexual episode between his wife and his king. It’s possible he killed her simply because he was a violent murderous man and because he could.

Edward_III_counting_the_dead_on_the_battlefield_of_Crécy

From the Chronicles of Jean Froissart – King Edward III counts the dead after the Battle of Crecy

It’s possible that when Jean Le Bel wrote his account, he inadvertently conflated Catherine, countess of Salisbury, with Alice, the recently deceased wife of Edward Montagu.

It’s also possible Jean Le Bel deliberately conflated the countess with Alice of Norfolk, because by conflating the two, the story elements become so much more sensational – wife of best friend, wife of friend to whom King Edward owes his crown – and with Alice dead, speculation can run rife.

Maybe Jean Le Bel, ex-foot soldier in the Border Wars, had sympathy with Edward Montagu, hero of Crecy, and wrote the tale to help Montagu justify the killing of his wife – although this seems unlikely, given the lady in Le Bel’s tale behaves with impeccable propriety, and the king, whom Le Bel admired, and had met, behaves shockingly.

Which begs the question: why did Jean Le Bel write this tale?

It’s easy to dismiss the entire story as propaganda by King Edward’s enemies in France. But Le Bel is not a Frenchman: he’s from Hainault, home of Queen Philippa. And he’s Edward’s supporter.

The better-known chronicler Jean Froissart is more circumspect:

You have heard me speak of Edward’s love for the countess of Salisbury. The chronicle of Jean Le Bel speaks of this love less properly than I must, for, please God, it would never enter my head to incriminate the king of England and the countess of Salisbury with such a vile accusation. If respectable men ask why I mention that love, they should know that Jean Le Bel relates in his chronicle that the English king raped the countess of Salisbury. Now I declare that I know England well, where I have lived for long periods mainly at the royal court and also with the great lords of the country. And I have never heard tell of this rape although I have asked people about it who must have known if it had ever happened. Moreover I cannot believe [it] and it is incredible that so great and valiant a man as the king of England would have allowed himself to dishonor one of the most notable ladies of this realm and one of his knights who had served him so loyally all his life.

This is Froissart’s second attempt at addressing the rape episode. In the first version, he omits mention of rape and instead substitutes an anecdote about Edward being enamoured of the countess and engaging in risqué flirting with her during a game of chess. Rapey ‘flirting’, it must be said – when the countess wins at chess, because he lets her, she refuses the ring he presses on her as a gift, whereupon he allegedly remarks “she could be sure he would have taken something of hers if he had won”.

When Froissart revised his chronicle a third time, he omits all mention.

It is said a principle informant of Froissart for his chronicles was Queen Philippa herself. Queen Philippa died in 1369, before the first volume of Froissart’s chronicles appeared. But removing the rape story might have been judicious.

Queen_Philippa_of_Hainault

Queen Philippa in effigy

There is another scandalous tale about a countess of Salisbury circulating from about the late 1340s. Famously, King Edward III created the Noble Order of the Garter, with founding members knighted in 1344 and Garter costume first issued, according to the king’s wardrobe accounts, in late 1348.

Popular legend has it that the countess of Salisbury was dancing at a ball in Calais when her garter slipped from her thigh. Courtiers sniggered, but King Edward gallantly picked up the undergarment and returned it to the countess, exclaiming “Honi soit qui mal y pense!” (“Shame on him who thinks badly of it!”).

Or, as the popular twentieth-century garbled humorous history book 1066 And All That recalls it, “Honey, your garter’s slipped!”

It’s a nonsense. The Order of the Garter refers to the straps (garters) used to secure armour. “Honi soit qui mal y sense” heaps shame on him who thinks badly of the English king’s claim to the French throne.

If a garter slipped on a dance floor (and it didn’t), the “countess of Salisbury” could have been Catherine, wife to Sir William. More likely it would have referred to Joan of Kent, another cousin and protégée of King Edward’s, who had bigamously married William Montagu the younger at age 13 in 1341 and had become countess on her father-in-law’s death in 1344.

Joan subsequently returned to her first husband, whom she’d married secretly (without royal consent) at age 12 in 1340, and, after his death in 1360, despite many obstacles the Black Prince, Edward Prince of Wales, son and heir to King Edward III, made her his wife.

Their son became King Richard II. Richard II’s deposition unsettled the succession and paved the way for the Wars of the Roses between the Houses of York and Lancaster.

Now that really was a scandal.

Jona_of_Kent

Joan of Kent – ceiling boss at Canterbury Cathedral

But still I ask myself:

If Jean Le Bel so admired Edward III, and if, as he says, he only ever knew King Edward to do one bad thing (this alleged rape – not starting the Hundred Years’ War, not hanging 12 year-old hostage Thomas Seton, not other war crimes or miscarriages of justice): why did Jean feel compelled to recount, in such grim detail, that one bad thing that Edward, allegedly, did?

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King Edward III of England

Credit:

This blog owes everything to Ian Mortimer’s discussion of the alleged rape by Edward III in his biography The Perfect King: The life of Edward III, father of the English Nation (2006) – Chapter 8, Chivalry and Shame

https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2017/06/12/lucrezia-elizabeth-and-sansa/


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On being dehumanised – Paul Lynch’s novel Red Sky in Morning, and the Gippsland Massacres

This piece is respectfully dedicated to the elders and descendants of the Indigenous peoples of the lands now known as Victoria and South Australia. I apologize sincerely on behalf of my own ancestors for the wrongs my ancestors committed against the Indigenous people they encountered in this country now known as Australia. I apologize sincerely for the wrongs the people of my heritage, Anglo-Celts, continued – and continue – to commit against the people of Australian Aboriginal heritage.

I hope in this piece it does not appear that I conflate the sufferings inflicted on the Indigenous people of Australia with the sufferings experienced by the emigrants from Scotland and Ireland who are my ancestors.

It is not my intention to do that.

Indigenous_survivors

My intention is to look at aspects of my own heritage I have not previously considered, with reference to two powerful pieces of writing I read today: a letter written in southeastern Australia in 1846 by a squatter (landholder) Henry Meyrick, to his relatives back home in England; and a novel by the Irish writer Paul Lynch, titled Red Sky in Morning.

Henry Meyrick wrote:

The blacks are very quiet here now, poor wretches. No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are. Men, women and children are shot whenever they can be met with … I have protested against it at every station I have been in Gippsland, in the strongest language, but these things are kept very secret as the penalty would certainly be hanging … For myself, if I caught a black actually killing my sheep, I would shoot him with as little remorse as I would a wild dog, but no consideration on earth would induce me to ride into a camp and fire on them indiscriminately, as is the custom whenever the smoke is seen. They [the Aboriginal people] will very shortly be extinct. It is impossible to say how many have been shot, but I am convinced that not less than 450 have been murdered altogether.

Ref Gippsland Settlers and the Kurnai Dead – Patrick Morgan – Quadrant Magazine Archived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine.

I read this appalling testimony today, the same day I read Paul Lynch’s novel, which, I think, centrally addresses these questions: how do we distinguish humans from animals; how and in what circumstances do some people privilege themselves as ‘human’ and reduce others to the status of ‘animals’; and, what are the consequences of some declaring themselves ‘human’ by denouncing others as ‘animal’?

What are the inter-generational consequences?

Massacre_of_Aboriginal_people

My father, who died last year at age 85, took pride in being part of history:

You see, my great-grandfather would now be 215 years old [born 1802], my grandfather would be 175 [born 1842], and my father would be 127 [born 1890] and my mother 125 [born 1892]. Even my sister would be 105 [born 1912]. […] All four of my grandparents had died long before I was born but because of this my parents told me a great deal about them and anecdotes of life in their time, including voyages by sailing ship from Great Britain, the goldrushes, Ned Kelly and the life of 12 kids on a 160 acre farm, floods, droughts, bushfires, horse-drawn vehicles and all.

My father’s grandfather arrived in the colony of South Australia in 1841 and made his way to the colony of Victoria, where he farmed land in central-west Victoria. My father passed on one anecdote only about the local Aboriginal peoples. He told me that his uncles – eight of whom survived childhood – who taught him to hunt and shoot, and whom he loved, practiced target shooting using the skulls of native people, set up as targets along fence posts.

I don’t know where these skulls were obtained. Presumably from Indigenous burial sites. Every thing about my father’s anecdote distresses me.

So what do I know, or think I know, really, about how my line of McDonalds came to be in Victoria, shooting at Aboriginal skulls?

In 1822 a girl was born in County Galway, Ireland, possibly to Luke Cavanagh and Mary Malone, but maybe not, and she was named Mary Jane. In about 1840 Mary Jane emigrated to Adelaide, in the young colony of South Australia, possibly travelling with a younger brother. There Mary married a man named Beresford, who worked felling timber on an estate called Burnside – neighboring the suburb where I grew up – and who died within the year. Beresford had a workmate named John McDonald. There were McDonalds in the neighborhood in Galway Mary might have come from, so possibly this John McDonald was someone she knew from home, or his family was known to her. Or perhaps, as his descendants believed, John McDonald hailed from southwest Scotland. We’ll probably never know. There were several John McDonalds who arrived in Australia in 1841 and whose known paths intersect with each other, confusing their tracks.

For certain, Mary Cavanagh married a John McDonald in 1841 in Adelaide and they had their first child, John, in 1842. This John is without doubt my great-grandfather.

In other respects there is doubt aplenty.

Mary Jane apparently had nine sons and three daughters with John McDonald between 1842 and 1858. A Mary Jane Cavanagh died on 8 October 1894 in Geelong, Victoria, at the age of 72. However… something is not right. There were twins, and twins in several generations of this line, but it still seems unlikely the same Mary Cavanagh had three children all born in 1858 and two children born 1851. My family’s research turned up a marriage certificate showing our Mary Cavanagh married John McDonald born 1802, whereas other amateur genealogy trees show her married to John McDonald born 1832 or 1835, which doesn’t make sense, given he’d be a child in 1841. It looks possible that somewhere, two or more Mary Cavanaghs and two or more John McDonalds have been elided.

It’s very unlikely that ‘our’ Mary Cavanagh died in Geelong. My father believed he knew his grandmother’s place of burial, in central western Victoria, but my father is dead. The main arguments in favour of ‘our’ Mary Cavanagh being the daughter of Luke and Mary and the mother of the named children is that the children include some with ‘family names’ that recur throughout our family tree: Donald, Angus, Annie, John, Archibald, James (Jim).

Does it matter?

We can’t know what kind of a person Mary Cavanagh was or why she emigrated.

I have always felt it was enough to say I cannot know and leave it at that. But in this past week I’ve read two novels by Paul Lynch that have made me rethink the Irish side of my heritage. The first, Grace, tells a story of the Great Hunger, the Great Potato Famine of 1845-46.

The second, which in fact was written prior to Grace (Grace is a kind of sequel), is the book I read today that shook me up so much.

Paul Lynch’s novel Red Sky in Morning tells a story of a man named Coll Coyle who is born in County Donegal, just north of Mary Cavanagh’s home County Galway, and who in 1832 flees to America after accidentally killing his landlord’s son.

Coll’s story is fiction, but the climactic sequence and other elements are based on fact. The climactic sequence is a massacre: humans regarded as animals, slaughtered.

Henry Meyrick writes of the Aboriginal people that “No wild beast of the forest was ever hunted down with such unsparing perseverance as they are”. Coll’s is another tale of a human being, in this case an Irishman, hunted down with unsparing perseverance, derided as an animal by his pursuer, the landlord’s right-hand man Faller.

Did you know […] the Irish never founded a town? Never founded a town. I bet you didn’t. But it’s true. The Danes and the Normans came here and cut down your forests. They founded on those clearings every single Irish town that exists. Had to build them themselves. Dublin, Wexford, Wicklow, Limerick, Cork. You’ve got the Danes to thank for all of that. […]

The Danes and the Normans they built your roads too. The Irish never founded a road. Imagine that. Thousands of years of trudging in the rain and the mud, back and forth, to and fro, in your bare feet, up to your knees in cow shit. It must have been slow going on your primitive roads. And nobody not once thought of making a road. You had to be helped with that too, didn’t you? […]

Not that you knew much about building either. You lived in your bothies made of clay and branches. You lived like that for thousands of years. But you could hardly call that living now could you […]? You had to be shown how to secure a proper roof over your heads. What I’m saying about all this is that you needed guidance.

[…] you have to wonder what the Irish were doing all those years. Imagine. What a state you would be in if left to your own devices. You really do have to think about that. To think of the advancement of the amenities of life. Well. I’ll tell you what you were doing […]. You were standing in the rain up to your oxters in cow shit. The world pissing on your heads. Huddling in your dank forests. Squirming about in your little wooden huts. Stealing each other’s cows then murdering each other for it. It’s not what you would call civilization is it […]?

The old man Faller is addressing says “What’s all that talk about? You’re as much from this place as any man. Not a drop of foreign blood in ye.”

Faller put his hands flat on the table and leaned into Ranty.

I’m not like you, he said.

I don’t think like you.

In truth, he does not.

A short while later Faller kills a man he repeatedly refers to as a “rat”, as vermin. He kicks a girl who he sneers is a “mamzer” (a Biblical term for outcast, the unclean product of incest). She should count herself lucky she lives. Almost no one who crosses Faller’s path lives.

In another short while Faller forces a crippled beggar to dance like an organ grinder’s monkey. He kills a man and orders the body fed to sheep.

Faller justifies killing two undefended women by saying

Let me tell you something […]. People aren’t people. They are animals, brutes, blind and stupid and following endless needs they know not what the origin. And all the rest that we place on top to make us feel better is a delusion.

In extremis, “Faller became at one with the beast” – by “beast” Lynch means requisitioned horse, but he might as well mean the Devil, the Great Beast. Faller is satanic. He is inhuman. As Coll’s bereft wife reflects, “Not everyone has the kindness in them.”

Encountering a loving, religious family who offer hospitality, help tend his injuries and promise to help him on his way next morning, Faller can only consider the husband and father “a very troublesome creature”. When bounty hunters trap him in the farmer’s home, he holds the family hostage, then uses the small daughter as a human shield, flinging her towards the bullets.

Is ‘Faller’ a reference to ‘Fallen’, or ‘Falling’, as in Lucifer?

Faller has a Darwinian dog eat dog philosophy. He lives to exert dominance, most particularly the power of life or death (mostly death). Cornered, he philosophizes

I’ll tell you, there’s always an agency more powerful than your own. Think about that. The terrible beauty of it. How it lies there unseen waiting for you. Every fate, every life, every story swallowed by forces greater […]

The man listening views Faller as a dangerous animal. He responds

But you know I spend a lot of my time on my own thinking betwixt me and the saddle and I ain’t come up with much but I did come up with this – the difference between a man and a beast is we’re able to imagine the future and they’re not. But what makes us no better than em is we cain’t predict it.

While Faller kills his way on his remorseless quest – like the Terminator, like a sociopathic Javert – Coll Coyle, the hunted quarry, barely one stumble ahead, faces shock after shock of life-threatening situations, and faces them like, dare one say, a man. A good man.

Irish_immigrants

He endures many weeks at sea in squalid conditions on the emigrant boat to New York. He helps nurse his companions through a lethal fever that kills scores of fellow passengers, their corpses swollen with bloat turfed overboard. He spares the life of a deranged young man who tries to kill him. He joins his compatriots in signing up with an Irishman in New York called Duffy who promises they’ll be well-fed and paid fairly if they work cutting down a mountain to make way for a railway at a site known to history as Duffy’s Cut.

Duffy’s Cut turns into a gulch of hell: “In the days that follow they begin to work not like men but beasts […] They burrowed into the surface like animals taking flight from some sluggish danger […]”

Transcontinental_railroad_workers

Transcontinental railroad workers in America

On a journey to Philadelphia for supplies, Coll and his mate the Cutter

[…] decided they wanted a drink. A place called the Bull’s Head Tavern and they opened tentatively the door. Card players with clean faces and suits and they stopped their game to eye the two strangers. A man coughed and they thought they heard him say dirty Irish and they felt they were being watched. The Cutter clanked coins on the counter and waved a grubby hand and ordered two drinks but the barman turned away from them […]

Coll and the Cutter are refused service at the Bull’s Head Tavern and, when they attempt to journey back to Duffy’s Cut, they’re run out of the district by a local posse.

Git walking. Up thataways. He pointed to the road. […] The men mounted their horses and followed closequarters.

Coll and the Cutter are marched back to Duffy’s Cut by the mounted gunmen, who see at the encampment dead and sick men. Cholera has broken out at Duffy’s Cut –

[…] their minds went wild with the thought of disease and they put their sleeves to their mouths to protect them from the air and they turned their horses one-handed and fled.

At the encampment, some of the workers feel their best chance is to leave while they still can. But now the horsemen know the Irishmen carry cholera fever, and it’s already too late. A man called Maurice walks away only to be dumped back at the camp entrance by a local horseman.

The men stood up and walked over to where he had stopped and they saw that he had left a body. It lay face down in the dirt noosed about the neck and Chalky turned it over with his toe. The man’s complexion was scratched raw and teeth were broken and gums were bleeding and they saw it was the body of Maurice. Beneath the blood his lips were grey and his eyelids brown and his extremities dark with his own faecal matter. The men stood stunned and the blacksmith wandered slowly over and he looked at the body. […] Coyle watched him and walked over. What in the hell?, he said.

Again the blacksmith sighed. There’s people about who’d like you lot to keep to your own, he said. That’s just the way it is. And he turned and led the mule away.

Coll, once again, nurses the sick, tries to do the right thing by the dying and dead. He enlists his remaining companions to load the sick up on a mule cart. They attempt to leave Duffy’s Cut as a group.

The mounted gunmen stop them.

Not another step I tell you, the leader said. Take yer sickness back down with you where you belong and not a damn sight near the good folk from round here families and all. You lot are staying put in the valley and if you think you aren’t hell will come paying. You hear me? I tell you. Pack of diseased dogs.

In the minds of the locals, the Irishmen have ceased to be human. In a short while, the encampment is overrun by men with guns who shoot down ever last Irish soul.

The way Paul Lynch imagines this massacre left me gasping.

DuffysCutHistMarker

I took to google to look up Duffy’s Cut on Wiki:

Duffy’s Cut is the name given to a stretch of railroad tracks about 30 miles west of PhiladelphiaUnited States, originally built for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in the summer and fall of 1832. The line later became part of the Pennsylvania Railroad‘s Main Line. Railroad contractor Philip Duffy hired 57 Irish immigrants to lay this line through the area’s densely wooded hills and ravines. The workers came to Philadelphia from the Ulster counties of DonegalTyrone and Derry to work in Pennsylvania’s nascent railroad industry. Less than two months after their arrival, all 57 are believed to have died during the second cholera pandemic. While most died of the disease, forensic evidence suggests that some may have been murdered, perhaps due to fear of contagion […].

I know that when Gaelic-speaking Scottish highlander emigrants arrived in the colony of Victoria, they were considered by the English settlers to be savages, and were penned up on arrival in camps in central Victoria until they could be ‘habituated’.

I know my forebears, both Irish and Scottish, were Gaelic-speakers.

I do not for one moment propose that the ways the Irish and the Scots who emigrated to the colonies had been dispossessed and mistreated in their home lands justifies their treatment of Indigenous people in Australia.

But I can’t help but relate the conditions of the subjected Irish and the Scots dispossessed in the Clearances with Henry Meyrick’s lines

For myself, if I caught a black actually killing my sheep, I would shoot him with as little remorse as I would a wild dog […]

Remorse did not extend far.

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Highland Scots


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Review: Grace (2017) by Paul Lynch

Grace_Paul_Lynch_Elly_McDonald_Writer_6Let’s get this out of the way straight up: Paul Lynch’s novel Grace is a tour de force. Not everyone will love it. Let me tell you why I do.

A young man, still a teen boy, stands on an open road in defiance of an oncoming speeding vehicle. The year is 1845, the place is western Ireland: the first year of an Gorta Mor – the Great Hunger, the Irish Potato Famine. The vehicle is a horse-drawn carriage – six horses, galloping, the coachman whipping them faster.

They think they own the place, says the boy.

Afterwards, as he lies in a ditch, his head aching from the coachman’s boot, he delivers his manifesto:

He says, I am not stupid in the least. Don’t you see what’s going on around you? The have-it-alls and well-doers who don’t give a fuck what is happening to the ordinary people. You saw that village yesterday and how prosperous it was, untouched by this curse. The arrogance of that driver. This is the way of things now. It could be the end of the world for the likes of us, but to the likes of them, they aren’t bothered. Do you know what I think? Those who are starving on the roads still believe deliverance is going to come. But who is going to deliver them? Not God and not the Crown and not anybody in this country. The people are living off hope. Hope is the lie they want to believe in. It is hope that carries you along, keeps you in your place. Keeps you down. Let me tell you something. I do not hope. I do not hope for anything in the least because to hope is to depend upon others. And so I will make my own luck. I believe there are no rules anymore. We are truly on our own in all this. If they have left us to fend for ourselves then we will do just that. We should meet it standing up. I believe that if I want that goddamn carriage to slow down or get off the road I can make it happen. I really believe this. Either I win or they win. There can be no other. I will make it happen, for how else am I supposed to live? What is happening now is no different to the end of the world, the only difference is that the rich can continue to live without affliction. The gods have abandoned us, that’s how I figure it. It is time to be your own god.

About a million people died from starvation and starvation-induced illness during the four years of the famine. A million more emigrated. Two-fifths of the population were reliant on potato crops that failed; countless numbers took to the roads, hoping to find food and sustenance, some kind of salvation. The wanderers on the roads, the beggars, the walking skeletons, prefigure our cultural nightmare of a zombie apocalypse. Grace is the story of people who strived their hardest to live, asking all the time, what kind of life is this? 

Grace Coyle is 14 when her mother cuts her hair and shoves her out of their cottage on Blackmountain in Donegal. “You’re the strong one now,” her mother tells her. Go find work. Come back in a year.

Grace’s younger brother Colly runs away to join her; Colly is a resourceful, pragmatic presence supporting Grace in her quest to survive. Another ally is Bart, the young man standing in the middle of that road. For me, Bart is the most compelling character in the story.

There is love, of sorts, between Grace and Bart, as far as two young people scrabbling to survive can experience love. There are moments when “She knows they are ancient and young and will never die.”

But this is not a love story. This is a story about how the very determined insist it cannot happen to them – they will never die – and yet circumstances and history mow them down and sweep them away. It’s a story about how, to survive, we need to believe we are exceptions, and yet when the great winters, the great hungers, come, belief in itself is insufficient.

They walk past a young woman delirious in a ditch, the woman smiling now as the snow gives last drink to her lips. The snow gowning her white for the slowest of country burials. The woman becoming part of it all, she thinks, that is the sky and the earth locked together in white and forgetting. You do not look but keep walking onwards. This feeling she has. It is not that she tells herself she is different. She knows she is different from all these others on the road, that what she sees around her will not happen to her also. That she will make better choices. So why would you even look at them, they have made their choices and you made yours, they aren’t even people, just sitters and starers with their cramp hands held out like the grabby hands of the dead. They want what you want and would take it out of your hand or even kill you for it so why would you even begin to give them a sympathetic look?

Grace is identifying as a survivor, identifying with the strong. Yet when snows blanket everything and everything is hunger, she is categorically not among the privileged.

Watching such men in the coffeehouse and watching such men on the street and she thinks that these people have been born clean, born into a higher position, while all the rest of us on earth were born into a lower position and such a thing is all down to who you are and where you come from and the luck of the draw and there is nothing you can do about it but take it back off them, because a fish cannot become a bird but there is nothing to stop a fish from wearing a bird’s feathers.

Grace wrestles with the limits of transformation, with who she needs to be to survive. Earlier, she asked, “a fish cannot become a bird, or can it? Maybe it can.” Later, she asks

Tell me this, do you think that everybody in the world is born fixed into their position?

I don’t know about that. It is certainly the case that everybody takes the same position in death.

It seems to me that a fish cannot become a bird and that the bird will attack the fish if it tries to fly. Perhaps that is the natural order of things. But why must that be so? I just saw men belonging to a farmer beat to death a poor man with clubs. They dug a trap to catch him like an animal, or like a fish if you think about it – pulled him like a fish from a pond. Poked his eyes out with their beaks. Things have gotten worse now. I think it would take some kind of magical effort for the fish to leave the water–

[…] Finally she asks, do you think he was just unlucky? Do you think he made his own luck?

The transformations Grace rolls through are many, and none of her own volition. From a young girl on a mountain, she becomes a boy named Tim, a cattle drover; a developing woman betrayed by her menstruation; the target of would-be rapists; a bandit, the pirate queen of Connaught; Deirdre of the Sorrows, Grainne loved by Diarmuid; a zombie; a corpse; a miracle of God, penitent; the girl who says no; the girl who can say nothing, nothing, no word in the face of what she’s seen; the one taken by the pooka, the fairies, returning home to find centuries have past and she a ghost, unrecognized; the mother who brings new life, at the cost of letting go of the old, forgetting.

More than once, men ask Grace, “What are you?”

Throughout her journey Grace is accompanied by ghosts, mostly ghosts who help sustain her. In the end, the ghosts must go, and with them, memory.

The novel is deeply concerned with memory. Colly frets about its nature. He frets about the relationship between the soul and memory:

Like, when you die, where do your memories go– if the soul doesn’t have a memory box, how can you remember your life when you die, where do memories go–

Grace wonders

About her own soul, all that has been put in it, wonders how a soul can be of the same essence when you are changing a little bit every day, when you are no longer the same person, because you are not the same person at the end of the year as you were at the start of it, and sometimes you change during the day, depending on certain events. And if that is the case, and you die at one age rather than another, would your soul not be completely different?

The tragedy of sweeping cataclysms is that those who do not live do not get to become who they might have been. The inventor. The engineer. The philosopher. The political activist. The writer.

Colly frets about how the soul relates to the body. Is the soul embodied? Does it take its form from the shape of the body? Does the soul then change as the body changes? What if the body is radically malformed?

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Paul Lynch, the writer, cares about soul and memory. In interviews he speaks of how the Great Hunger left survivors traumatized, unwilling or unable to speak of what they knew. He speaks of the legacy of trauma in Ireland.

That’s one summation of what he tries to do here: he tries to speak of the legacy of trauma left by the Great Hunger, and of the social changes, including changes in the role of religion, and changes to the heritage of supernatural belief, resulting from the Great Hunger.

I think he does this extraordinarily.

I understand from researching Paul Lynch’s previous writings that Grace is a sequel of sorts. Now I feel compelled to find his first novel (Grace is his third), which tells the story of Grace’s father: Red Sky in Morning.

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I opened this piece by saying Grace will not be loved by all. Against my usual practice, after finishing my reading I googled reviews and articles on the internet. Many are rave reviews, particularly those written by professional reviewers and authors. Yet, many reader reviews online about Grace are negative. Mostly, the complaint is that the story is too unremittingly grim. Readers, apparently, can’t handle grim. Others complained there is no story. These are people presumably unfamiliar with the picaresque genre, who can’t relate to themes unfolded episodically within an overarching narrative. Some readers complained the language is impenetrable. The more highbrow critics complained the characters are stock Irish stereotypes. The most highbrow critics complained Lynch’s language reads like a parody of Irish literary modernism.

Some critics writing for major newspapers took Lynch to task for language overworked, overwritten, deliberately obscure. I found some critics for major newspapers lacking in credibility: two of them misidentified characters – one a character at the book’s start, one towards its end – which undermined my confidence in their readings.

The reviewer for the New York Times started her review by quoting P.G. Wodehouse:

To twist a phrase from P.G. Wodehouse, it’s not difficult to tell the difference between Paul Lynch’s writing and a ray of sunshine, and “Grace”, his third novel, reveals an undiminished appetite for the depiction of suffering. Through its young heroine, we experience all the indescribable horrors of the Irish famine. Lynch goes where only famished dogs should go, and it’s a measure of his skill that he keeps us with him all the same.

Oh my. A backhanded compliment. Never mind that it references what for me was the most touching moment in the book and makes a joke of that. Never mind that it foregrounds a review of a book about famine with reference to a twee humorist. The suggestion that suffering as a subject is unseemly, that such suffering is indescribable, is hostile and to my mind bizarre. If this book were by a black author, about American slavery, would Katherine Grant write this way? If it were a book about the Holocaust, by a Jewish author, could she write this way?

But I digress.

Lynch’s writing is without doubt deliberately, perhaps provocatively, poetic. His language in places is blank verse. His imagery is dense, his grammar as if translated from another language. He drops in Gaelic phrases. He drops allusions to Gaelic myth and folklore that might elude a reader unfamiliar with this heritage. It is difficult to read, and sentences, paragraphs, demand re-reading.

Paul Lynch says his writing is intuitive and yet he rewrites sentences up to fifty times. He seems to ask, if I value language to the extent of rewriting up to fifty times, is it so hard to reread that sentence more than once?

He seems to ask, if people lived these experiences, and couldn’t speak of them, and if I write them, if I write and rewrite and try to honour the experiences of the dead, is it so hard to bear with the grim, and see it through?

Paul Lynch does not believe that a novel set in an historical time is necessarily a genre novel, “historical fiction”. He believes his historical novel has contemporary relevance. His novel addresses the Irish Great Famine and also every other famine, pestilence, genocide, holocaust that has reduced humans to animals and reduced life to survival.

Is it so hard to remember?

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In short: The Natural Way of Things (2015) by Charlotte Wood

Charlotte_Wood_The_Natural_Way_of_Things

5 January 2016

I finally read Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things [which subsequently won the 2016 Stella Prize for “Writing by Australian women”].

I liked the opening sequences and the final section; some of the middle sagged a bit. It’s not an easy novel to like – stylistically sometimes too gothic for my palate (the Ransom doll) and ideologically hardline. Even as an unabashed feminist I found myself squeaking “But I like men!”. Which is beside the point in a schematically rigorous parable like this.

It was very similar, thematically, to the novella I wrote mid-2012: women forcibly interred in a kind of prison camp run by men, subjected to humiliations intended to enforce the “natural way of things”, with femaleness seen as abject and subject to male controls. I liked my opening sequences, too, but my draft backed my heroine into a muddy pit and I could not devise a way to extract her. Eventually I edited it into a short story, which worked better.

Charlotte Wood has set hers in a distinctively Australian environment, anchored by Australian references (notorious true crimes perpetrated against individual women and generic misogynist scenarios), whereas mine was set in a land of fable with lots of east Asian elements. Also mine was as much a lashing out at corporate culture… oops, so is Charlotte’s.

Charlotte’s novel stayed in my mind and I remember it now, precisely two years later (to the day), with more appreciation than I felt at the time. Also, I thank her for this:

 

I’m thinking I might reactivate one or both of my blogs, Elly McDonald Writer and Telling Tales. Maybe I’ll import the content of one into the other and just retain one [which is what I did]. Last time I was writing memoir pieces that sent me into a tailspin of depression. Enough of that. Not sure what I’d write about at this point.

Turns out I write about gender politics and violence, for now.

Feral_Woman

 


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Review: Will Storr – Selfie (2017), Heretics (2013), Will Storr vs The Supernatural (2007)

22 July 2017

Unexpectedly, Will Storr starts his report by discussing suicide. He’s so on point, so direct, I’m immediately won.

Professor Sophie Scott, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, writes: “I’ve never seen such a well-thought-through and argued piece of work as Selfie, really taking ideas around self-esteem back to their philosophical and historical origins – and pulling them to pieces. I loved it.”

The final chapter is headed How to Stay Alive in the Age of Perfectionism. I’ll let you know in c.350 pages’ time.

Selfie_RedOkaaay. Already I want to quote almost every paragraph.

“… it was also at Esalen that the Western self began being lovingly penetrated by narcissism.” I think he means we’re fucked.

26 July 2017

I’m at the penultimate chapter of Selfie, by Will Storr, and am dismayed to find the internet and social media are the manifestations of neoliberal and libertarian individualist ideals.

In this chapter, titled The Digital Self, Will visits Silicon Valley to investigate to what extent the IT set has “internalized the economy of their time, fashioning it into a sense of who they were, who they wanted to be, and how the world ought to work.”

“This vision, of individuals ‘free’ to get along and get ahead by zooming unfettered from job to job, is what’s often known as the ‘gig economy’. It appears, too, in the guise of the ‘zero hours contract’ worker. They’re arrangements in which the responsibility of the employer is minimized, and that of the individual maximized.”

Ouch

24 October 2017

Heretics: people who persist in beliefs that contradict the orthodoxies.

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Some editions of this book have a different title – The Unpersuadables: adventures with the enemies of science. (NB Book is not a dualistic ‘rationality vs irrationality’, ‘science vs fantasy’, ‘reason vs the ridiculous’ tome.)

Will Storr examines the nature of certainty, of absolute conviction. He interviews Creationists, climate change deniers, Holocaust deniers, gurus, alien abductees, crusaders against Satanic sexual abuse, rejecters of conventional medicine and opponents of psychiatry. He investigates the neuroscience underpinning psychological and philosophical models of how belief operates.

Immensely entertaining, informative, and more than a little alarming for anyone whose belief set includes “free will”.

He’s not so concerned to make value judgments on the validity or otherwise of the beliefs, although he’ll generally report his own responses. What he’s interested in is how beliefs are formed and maintained, sometimes in the face of immense opposition and/or what might seem to many compelling evidence discrediting those beliefs. There are chapters where the belief being examined cannot be proved or disproved convincingly.

20 December 2017

From Will Storr vs. The Supernatural, by Will Storr (p.242):

‘This is my book,’ she tells me. ‘It’s poetry. Poems about my life.’

‘Oh, wow,’ I say. I flick it open at a random page. It’s a poem called ‘Depression’.

There’s a small silence. Jacquie is looking at me. I feel a warm puff of embarrassment redden my face. This is too intimate, too soon. I decide to pretend I didn’t notice ‘Depression’. I glance a look at the next poem.

‘Debt.’

She’s still watching me. I stare at the page. The dog trots out of the room. I listen to its paws clack on the vinyl floor. It runs up the stairs as I pick another page.

‘Divorce.’

The blood in my face runs suddenly hotter. Some wind-chimes somewhere chime. I flick again.

‘I’m Not An Alcoholic.’

Shit.

‘Prison.’

No!

‘Tramp.’

‘This looks great,’ I say, closing the book sharply and putting it down on the table next to me.

‘Oh, look,’ I say as my eyes settle on a serendipitous subject-change opportunity. ‘Are those tarot cards?’

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‘You know,’ says the [psychiatrist], as I bend to get my coat, ‘human beings have always been desperate to believe in all kinds of supernatural mumbo-jumbo because they are ways of explaining away the most terrifying fact of all. That we are zombies leading meaningless lives.’

‘Zombies?’

‘Yes. Emotions and free will are just an illusion that we have to stop us blowing our brains out.’

I stop and freeze and listen. Dr James the philosopher said that some people have used the fact that we’re not zombies to try and prove that we have souls. But is Dr Mark right? Are we just very sophisticated zombies? If so, it’s not just religion, ghosts and the afterlife that we use as a comfort blanket when faced with the brutal concept of total death. It’s free will and our entire emotional landscape. Could every decision we make, every feeling we feel, every moral conviction we have, our very sense of self, our personality, our ‘soul’, our ‘consciousness’, be just a chimera whipped up by our minds to keep us keeping on?

‘Oh, yes,’ he says, fiddling with a Biro idly. ‘You and I are actually zombies living an automatic life. And we are here for no reason at all.’

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Will Storr


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Review: zombies – The Girl with All the Gifts (2017) by M.R.Carey and World War Z: an oral history of the zombie war (2006) by Max Brooks

The_Girl_With_All_The_Gifts_2On Facebook, 12 July 2017, I wrote:

I am reading a dystopian zombie page-turner called The Girl With All The Gifts, by M.R. Carey, “Now a major movie”.

As a movie, it could be the third installment in 28 Days Later / 28 Weeks Later, both of which I love.

As a novel, its distinguishing feature is its concern with ontology: when is a human ‘human’? When does a ‘hungry’ cease to be human? When does a “frigging abortion” become humanized?

Strong (but skilful) metaphors for race and ethnic prejudices.

I was so certain as I read it that the author was a woman – and probably a woman who suffers Candida Albicans – but the notes at the back make clear he’s a male, a very, very experienced male commercial writer with high level experience writing graphic novels, TV, film et al, including the graphic novel Lucifer, which the Tom Ellis hipper-than-hip TV series is based on. He was commissioned to write The Girl With All The Gifts simultaneously as a novel and a film script, on the basis of a short story previously commissioned for an anthology. He’s pretty damn slick. I admire the way some of the characters were dispatched.
Also, there’s something rather bold he does at the end.

The_Girl_With_All_The_GiftsAlmost four years earlier to the day, on 10 July 2013, I wrote on Facebook:

Sometimes a written narrative is just so superior to film it blows me away.

Case in point: World War Z (Z being for zombie). Saw the movie yesterday, left the cinema with a suspicion it was one huge noisy public health service message promoting childhood vaccinations (take THAT, Jenny McCarthy!)

Picked up the source novel this evening. From page 1 it’s obvious it’s a much more intelligent, witty, subtle, and ambitious exploration of global breakdown. Sigh. I am so HAPPY immersed in Zombiedom

The movie’s story line bears very little resemblance to the book. Everything from the Belarus Airlines incident onwards is a movie invention, and I’m guessing a bit ad hoc: the script as originally shot climaxed with the Battle of Moscow, but when the studio did test viewings they realised it came off as same-old same-old, so they rewrote and reshot nearly a third of the movie. How could it be coherent?

I’m a few chapters into the book now and so far we’ve been exploring people smuggling, the refugee mentality, environmental depredation, economic exploitation and the changing balance of power between First World and developing nations. The international black market in human organs. The author is hitting all targets. No mention yet of any Gerald Lakes/Brad Pitt character.

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I’m 50 pages from the end now and the Brad Pitt character has not made an appearance. No nonsense about vaccines. In fact the only points of similarity with the movie are that there is a zombie pandemic, bad things happen on a plane (alluded to tangentially) and in New Jersey (but very different from the bad things in the film version), and the Israelis quarantine their territory (but pre-1967 territory, excluding Jerusalem, and their quarantined state is not overrun).

So instead of being a story essentially about one bloke and his family we have “oral histories” from folk in all parts of the planet, including an Australian who commands the International Space Station and listens to Redgum’s I Was Only 19.

Oh, and the conceptualization of zombies is quite different. Amongst other things, they are not fast moving or physically agile, and they do not climb. Symptoms (‘reanimation”) do not occur within 10 seconds and can take minutes, hours, days or even weeks, dependent on the mode of infection e.g. whether a severe bite or a scratch, to a major vein or minor capillaries.

My friend Linda, a scientist by training, stayed hung-up on the movie resolution:
I found the vaccination part strange and inconsistent. Most of the people would have been vaccinated so have antibodies for a number of diseases. Yes, the main guy was sick when he came face to face with the teeth tapping freekin zombie, but simply inoculating people with small pox does not make them sick, therefore invisible to the teeth tappers. I didn’t get that. If someone can explain it, please do.

I can’t help her.

I cannot begin to explain the vaccine logic.

…oo oo … there IS a vaccine angle in the book, but it’s a placebo, cynically marketed in the early phase of the pandemic with dual objectives: to profit from panic (the manufacturer), and to provide reassurance – albeit misplaced – to the U.S. populace (the government).

How embarrassing. The zombie book has made me cry. And what am I crying at? The “oral history” provided by the (fictional) Hollywood director wizkid who, post apocalypse, turns his talents to filming morale boosting propaganda.

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Review: My Absolute Darling (2017) by Gabriel Tallent

My_Absolute_Darling

The cover blurb sums it up:

At fourteen, Turtle Alveston knows the use of every gun on her wall; that chaos is coming and only the strong will survive it; that her daddy loves her more than anything else in this world. And he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her with him.

She doesn’t know why […] the line between love and pain can be so hard to see; why making a friend may be the bravest and most terrifying thing she has ever done; and what her daddy will do when he finds out…

Turtle is aptly named: she is both a lizard-brained creature armored by her shell, and the mythical turtle who bears the world on its back. She is at different points passive and watchful, and “the future shotgun-toting, chainsaw-wielding queen of postapocalyptic America”.

Naming matters in this novel. There is a worldview debate between Turtle’s daddy and his father, Turtle’s grandpa: do we know a thing by first naming it, or, in order to know it, do we need to approach it with complete openness, study it, examine it, understand it, before we can name? Martin, Turtle’s father, is, in addition to being a “narcissistic sociopath”, an avid reader of philosophy. He tells Turtle she is the Platonic ideal of herself: his perfect imagined survivor. Daniel, Turtle’s grandpa, teaches her to observe and intuit and recognize the truth from her observation.

This isn’t an abstract debate. Martin warns Turtle against allowing other people’s interpretations to corrupt her understanding: he wants his version of the ‘truth’ to remain unchallenged. Challenging Martin’s ‘truth’ could be fatal. Challenging Martin in any way brings painful retribution.

When we meet Turtle, she is wholly Martin’s. She is silent, sad, almost non-verbal. At school, she fails vocabulary tests again and again. She cannot reach for the appropriate words. Her worldview, mirroring Martin’s, is of a hostile, menacing environment. She has no sense that people might care, or cooperate.

When presented with the sentence ‘The _________ enjoyed working with children’, Turtle surmises ‘suspect’. Of course. “The suspect enjoyed working with children”. Turtle, whose father has had sexual relations with her for many years, whose father refuses her any contact with medical professionals or counselors, has no concept that the more obvious choice might be “The paediatrician enjoyed working with children”.

Turtle cannot find appropriate words, so inappropriate words speak for her. She is unable to speak of other girls or women without hissing misogynist violence. “Bitch.” “Whore.” “Cunt.” “Slit.” Turtle believes these words say everything there is to be said for femaleness, everything there is to be said about her. She believes her father, accepts everything he says. He calls her “kibble”: dog food.

Sometimes, Turtle has an urge to break free, to at least temporarily slip the leash, even knowing she’ll beaten after her day AWOL. On one of these free-range rambles, she encounters two boys, boys lost hiking, and protects them from the elements, maybe saves their lives. If Turtle is to have a life, this might be the moment she saves herself. This is the moment she chooses friendship.

Where will friendship lead?

We know from the outset chaos is coming. We know there must be a showdown. We don’t know who will live or who will die. We realize early on that Turtle needs someone outside herself to fight for; fighting on her own behalf will not be sufficient to survive her father.

Gabriel Tallent loves language and the boys Turtle meets are hyper-verbal. They’re very funny, and their linguistic joking provides much needed relief in an intense, extraordinarily poetic novel, filled with excess language thick like impasto paint technique, like the tidal wave and its debris-filled aftermath that is this narrative’s turning-point episode.

Turtle at times is a cartoon superhero(ine).

“She doesn’t feel cold.”

“Or pain.”

“Only justice.”

“We think she might be a ninja.”

“She denies this.”

“But of course, she’d have to deny it.”

“If she said yes, she was a ninja, we’d know she wasn’t.”

“I wouldn’t describe the ninja theory as definitive, but it’s a live possibility.”

“Anyway, she led us out of the valley of the shadow.”

“She can see in the dark.”

“She can walk across water.”

We can know a thing by looking at it closely and describing it. Then we might name it. Say, “ninja”.

But would we stake our lives on naming truthfully?

Gabriel_Tallent

Debut novelist Gabriel Tallent

 

Valar Morghulis (26 February 2014)