The Grim Reading Project has its genesis in a Facebook list of Grinch Anti-Xmas Reading posted by Readings Book Store late in 2017. I can’t explain why I am reading these books. I think I’m writing about them because I’m drawn to write about things that disturb me that are not resolved. Maybe it’s a way I work through grief.
They’re both best sellers in South Korea and well-reviewed internationally. They’re neither of them particularly demanding, nor ambitious beyond the thriller genre.
I enjoyed Seven Years of Darkness better simply because it gallivants along at a ripping pace and is entertainingly told, focusing on So-won (Sowon), at age 11, when he survived a catastrophe that wiped out his community and removed him from everyone he cared for, and at age 18, when the events of seven years before come home to roost.
So-won has three guardian angels, which is more than most of us, but he needs them. There is a moustache-twirlingly villainous antagonist, some flawed parents, and a cat named Ernie.
The classic K-drama (Korean TV series) trope of The Drowning Boy features prominently. I learned some interesting things about Korean underwater rescue scuba diving. I learned a bit about safety mechanisms for giant hydroelectric dams. Having read this book and viewed the French TV series Les Revenants I’ll pass on ever living downstream of a hydraulic dam, thank you.
The final sequences of Seven Years of Darkness were ludicrous but satisfying. There are worse ways to pass time.
Next: The Only Child. I don’t know whether to blame the Korean original or the translation for the somewhat leaden writing style. But The Only Child has its virtues.
The Only Child features several only-children as main characters. There is Yi Seon-kyeong, a lecturer in criminal psychology who is likened by herself and others to a Korean Clarice Starling (in reference to the FBI rookie profiler in The Silence of the Lambs). There is Yi Byeong-do, the Ted Bundy-like glamorous serial killer. There is Yun Ha-yeong, an 11 year-old whose near and dear drop dead with statistically improbable frequency. Don’t let her near pets.
The novel alternates between first-person as told by Byeong-do and third-person, mostly from the POVs of Seon-kyeong or Ha-yeong. It says something when this reader relates more sympathetically to an adult male who has murdered perhaps a score of women than to a neglected pubescent girl.
The author isn’t really all that fussed to keep us in suspense about whodunnit. She’s more interested in psychological development, the unfolding understandings of the main characters. The real suspense is in how the plot will pan out.
To my great pleasure, the ending is a direct homage to Alfred Hitchcock, to his original ending of his film Suspicion.
The Disaster Tourist is a short (185 pages) novel, a surreal satire translated from Korean in a crisp tone. I was about to say it’s deadpan and heartless -“The deaths were unadvertised disasters, unexpected by the travellers” – but instead I’ll say it’s angry. Funny, but angry. Appalling and appalled.
It makes me feel much better about not being able to travel. And much worse about previous holidays in other people’s misery.
The Disaster Tourist looks at the contemporary (pre-COVID) model of Third World tourism, specifically Pacific island tourism, and lays bare the commercial drivers and marketing strategies, in catastrophically exaggerated form.
The premise is this: A disaster occurs. Lives are lost. But a catastrophe is also an opportunity. A sensational disaster will attract foreign funding (foreign aid) and put an otherwise obscure location on the map (even as it wipes it off the map). Righteous tourists will come to put things right. They will come to experience authenticity, what life is really all about (death). They will come to rubber-neck: to gape, to tut-tut, to experience shock and awe.
If a community has nothing else to offer, being poor, not scenic, its indigenous culture beaten down or dismissed as unremarkable, might it not make sense to manufacture a disaster? To script a catastrophe? To create spectacle? Might that not also provide vested interests an opportunity to rewrite the narrative, to rebuild to design, eliminating or minimising undesirable elements?
Ko Yo-na – or Yona Ko, as the translation insists – is clinging precariously to a ten-year career designing and promoting “Disaster Tourist” travel packages. She’s on the out at work, possibly for reporting her manager for sexual harassment. Her resignation is not accepted. Instead, management proposes she tests out one of their holiday packages, as a guest (expenses paid by the company), writes a token report, then reports back at work refreshed after her “break”.
Yona chooses the Mui package: an island off the coast of Vietnam where an ethnic massacre occurred decades ago. It has sinkholes and a dormant volcano.
Things go terribly wrong for Yona, her own personal disaster tour. But even more terribly wrong is the context: Mui is run by a shadowy corporation known as Paul, and the mechanics of what Paul has planned for Mui’s people and its future is something most tourists would wish to shut their eyes to.
By the time Yona realises she is living within the constraints of a script – an actual script, written by an actual scriptwriter – she’s lost all control of her circumstances.
What is her assigned role? What is the role of Luck? And what of the crocodiles?
The Disaster Tourist recalls for me Amy Tan’s novel Saving Fish From Drowning, and some of J.G. Ballard’s satire. Also the 1998 film Wag the Dog, and its precursor The Mouse That Roared (1959).
Did I enjoy reading it? Not hugely. It was hard and cold, like a pebble. Like a pebble in my shoe, it disturbed my comfort.
Alfred Hitchcock said his films at essence addressed mundane issues, dressed up in a plot to make them entertaining. Reductively, Rear Window is about a man who can’t decide whether to marry his girlfriend. (This is separate from the McGuffin, a different concept. But layers within layers, like a Russian doll.)
In Severance, Ling Ma interweaves a post-apocalyptic narrative with the tale of a Chinese-American immigrant millennial making her way in New York.
At one level, Severance is about a woman conflicted over breaking up with her boyfriend when he leaves the Big Smoke. Leaving New York would mean leaving her career. Her mother lost her career accompanying her husband from China to the U.S. What is the value of a life without a career, without participation in the workforce and consumer culture?
Leaving New York City would mean leaving a place: a place of significance, a place that provides Candace with identity. She’s left places before – Fujian, in China, and Salt Lake City. She’s acutely conscious of identity dislocation. New York is her carapace. She wants to hunker down.
I suspect it’s no accident the central character in Severance is named Candance. Ling Ma peppers her narrative with brand names and pop culture references. When we think of a single woman in New York, we might think of Candace Bushnell, writer of Sex and the City.
My favourite paragraph:
In Jonathan’s apartment, we used to watch single-woman-in-Manhattan movies, a subgenre of New York movies. There was Picture Perfect, An Unmarried Woman, Sex and the City. The single heroine, usually white, romantic in her solitude. In those movies, there is nearly always this power-walk shot, in which she is shown striding down some Manhattan street, possibly leaving work during rush hour at dusk, the traffic blaring all around and the buildings rising before her. The city was empowering. Even if a woman doesn’t have anything, the movie seemed to say, at least there is the city. The city was posited as the ultimate consolation.
This paragraph seems to me to prefigure the ending (and “The End”, as the pandemic is termed).
Candace spends much of her time in her early months in Manhattan just walking the streets, taking photographs, posting her photos in a blog as NY_ghost. Similarly in her last months.
The subgenre of the single-woman-roaming-Manhattan gets spliced with the post-apocalypse dystopia genre, so Candace is also Will Smith in I Am Legend and Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, the isolated survivor, the wandering civis post-civilisation. She becomes an urban ghost.
So to my mind this is a novel about place and identity. In the face of apocalypse, various characters are tied to place: Bob the crazy would-be New Order leader drawn to the mall of his childhood; Ashley the former fashion student drawn to her childhood home, specifically her wardrobe; Eddie the NY taxi driver forever bound to his cab. Candace, initially, encloistered in her office, before she realises the working life is redundant, an idea whose time has ended. As her boyfriend knew.
Severance is also, among other things, a critique of consumption and capitalism. In its post-apocalyptic dystopia, infected people – ” the fevered” – mindlessly, endlessly re-enact meaningless rituals from their former lives until their bodies give out, while the handful of survivors go on pillaging “stalks”.
The further I read the more I appreciated how ambitious Ling Ma has been here – it’s not just a post-pandemic dystopia, or a millennial generation satire, or a critique of consumption and capitalism, or a study in cultural dislocation, or an investigation of memory, the place of the past, the past of place, the role of routines and ritual… it’s all that, conveyed in beautiful – sensitive, intelligent, funny, chilling – writing.
What makes life worth living? Is it work? Is it place? Is it people we love?
My second favourite paragraph, an email to Candace from a colleague in China:
You are good at what you do. In these sad, uncertain times, however, it is important to be with people you love. I do not know the details of the epidemic in New York, but my suggestion to you: Leave. Spend time with your family.
Candace no longer has family.
When I ask myself, if Candace were to become fevered, as some of the seeming “survivors” do, what ritual or routine that defined her identity would she loop till death?
My guess: walking. She’d walk city streets till she dropped.
Even if a woman doesn’t have anything, at least there is the city.
Kudos to Suzanne Collins for ignoring commercial imperatives and writing a Hunger Games prequel the fans will hate, not filmable as a blockbuster. Though it could make a terrific art-house film.
This prequel is set 63 years prior to the first of The Hunger Games trilogy: 517 pages thrashing out the Hobbes vs Locke Enlightenment philosophers’ debate – human darkness vs human optimism – through the making of a dictator, the unmaking of a man. I’ll attempt this blog post without spoilers. The biggest ‘spoiler’ is a given: Coryo Snow, a boy of promise, must in the end be Coriolanus Snow, the sociopath tyrant.
My sister and I both hated that sentimental, golden glow epilogue tacked onto the end of The Hunger Games film trilogy. We saw it as a betrayal of the novels.
“The point,” I glowered, “Is that heroes, if they survive, are maimed for life, irrevocably damaged.”
“No,” said my sister, who always knows best. “The point is that heroes become monsters. Heroes are killers. They can’t escape that.”
Coriolanus ‘Coryo’ Snow is the ‘hero’ of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a title explicitly referring to the Americana murder ballad tradition. He’s a ‘hero’ who over the course of his narrative becomes an anti-hero and ultimately, long before The Hunger Games trilogy kicks in, an antagonist.
In the C17th, philosopher John Locke contended that human beings are born into the common condition of humanity (which for him, encompassed a concept of human rights), but that each individual is born a “blank slate”, with the capacity to make moral choices that determine the kind of human they become: self-authored. Thomas Hobbes, in contrast, argued that human nature is base, brutish, a reactive amygdala wired to fear, aggression, violence, self-preservation: self-interested (no, Hobbes did not pre-empt neuroscience, my amygdala reference is anachronistic).
The Hunger Games is a battlefield where the ideas of Locke versus Hobbes play out. In Collins’ Hunger Games novels, every person fights through their own Hunger Games, in their own arena. The slogan is “May the odds be ever in your favour”. But when the game is skewed, and the odds are never in your favour, the outcome can only be Hobbesian.
The boy Coryo Snow starts, as all Hunger Games contestants do, with a set of resources (weapons), and a set of deficits. Coriolanus is the 18 year-old son of a dead war hero, from a patrician family whose antebellum wealth was immense. Their fortune was based on munitions, with manufacturing and research bases in District 13, nuked out of existence during the war.
Coryo was an 8 year-old orphan when the rebels were defeated. His people, in the Capitol, were ostensibly the ‘victors’, but his cohort grew up under blanket bombing, with constant gruesome death, starvation, even cannibalism. They endured their own “hunger games”, desperately trying to stay alive on the thinnest gruels, sparsely dished out. Even 10 years post-war, the streets are blocked by rubble, the poor still go hungry (very hungry), and the final year students at the Capitol’s elite Academy bear a huge weight of expectation to revive the Capitol’s prosperity. They also carry an immense legacy of bitterness.
Coryo has social capital (he is part of the elite), but no actual money. If the Snow family is to recover what he sees as their rightful place, he must attend university. If he is to attend university, he will need scholarships. He is battling for The Prize. The final year of schooling is an arena in itself.
Coryo’s personal capital (resources) include an exceptionally astute strategic mind. He grasps situations quickly, with clarity, and can formulate swift, effective responses. Excellent survival skills. But if you see things with clarity, and can see where they’re headed, and what it takes to survive is an unethical action, or actions, are you morally culpable? Is it more worthy to act in line with idealist morality and die?
What if the idealists by their actions endanger others, people who owe them nothing (unless altruism is a human absolute)?
Or: is seeing situations with clarity and acting pragmatically, in one’s own self-interest, the definition of sociopathy?
Coryo’s personal capital also includes charm. He’s an actor. He is constantly alert to the impression on others his behaviours make. Is he irrevocably two-faced, to be condemned, or is that good sense? What consequences follow being too honest, too open?
It’s important to register that although this novel is not told in the first-person, directly in Coryo’s voice, everything is presented from his perspective. That’s terrific, in that Coryo is awake to most of the information salient to his survival. But it is a self-justifying perspective. And he has pronounced blind spots.
Given how astute he is, and how obvious some of the information he filters out is to a reader, what determines these blind spots? Is it simply that he doesn’t want to see some things? Is this guilt? Or, again, is it sociopathy: he screens out distasteful data that serves his survival?
He’s certainly obsessive.
It’s fair to say Coryo is deaf to poetry and does not understand music. That’s a shame, as the person he believes he loves is a poet and musician. We have no access to who that person is beyond the poetry and music they articulate, because Coryo is stumbling blind there.
What he does know is this: ‘She’s onstage. You’re onstage. This is the show.’
The Capitol’s chief of weaponries research tells him, “You’re good at games. One day you’ll be a Gamemaker.”
The thought had never crossed his mind. […I]t didn’t seem like much of a job. Or like it required any particular skill, tossing kids and weapons in an arena and letting them fight it out. He supposed they had to organise the reapings and film the Games, but he hoped for a more challenging career. “I’ve got a great deal to learn before I can even think of that,” he said modestly.
Coriolanus is nothing if not a fast learner.
That’s his dilemma: what is he – nothing, or a fast learner?
Afternote: A 1799 poem by William Wordsworth is a key device in this narrative. It’s worth noting Wordsworth started out as a youthful radical liberal and aged into a conservative. I think there’s a point there.
“You know how European literature begins?” he’d ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. “With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.” And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. “ ‘Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles… Beginning where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war.”
The Human Stain, Philip Roth – as quoted in the frontpiece of The Silence of The Girls
Why did Pat Barker not title her intelligent, engaging and troubling novel The Silence of the Women? Because she tells a tale of girls, mostly, young girls taken as war trophies and held in sexual servitude by the killers of their families.
I’d heard [the enemy commanders’] plans for Troy […]. Every man and boy killed […] pregnant women to be speared in the belly on the off chance their child would be a boy, and for the other women, gang rape, beatings, mutilation, slavery. A few women – or rather a very few girls, mainly royal or of aristocratic birth – would be shared out among the kings […] I might easily end up living the life of the common women, dodging blows by day and sleeping under the huts at night […]
Pat Barker, Man Booker-winning author of the Regeneration Trilogy, which tells of the human damage wrought by WW1, is not the first author to retell Homer’s Iliad in the imagined voice of Briseis, the young girl at the centre of the rift between Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Achaeans (Bronze Age Greeks) and the armies’ most feared warrior, Achilles. Daughter of Troy, by Sarah B Franklin, precedes The Silence of The Girls, but I haven’t been able to find information about that book.
Other authors have deployed Briseis as a character in their fictions: Christa Wolf, in her novel Kassandra; Judith Starkston, in Hand of Fire (2014); Madeline Miller, in The Song of Achilles (2011).
The Song of Achilles – which missed the mark for me so completely I couldn’t read far enough in to meet Briseis – represents Briseis as being in love with Achilles’ loved companion, Patroclus. Best-selling author Marion Bradley Zimmer had a stab at Achilles’ story in Fire Brand (1987), where she presents Briseis as in love with Achilles.
Possibly the most widely recognized representation of Briseis in contemporary English-speaking culture is actress Rose Byrne’s film portrayal of the character in the Brad Pitt vehicle Troy (2004), where, again, Briseis is shown as being in love with Brad-Achilles. The 2018 BBC TV series Troy: Fall of a City features a Rose Byrne look-alike playing Briseis (I don’t who Briseis loves in this one).
In The Silence of The Girls, Pat Barker’s Briseis wonders “What will they make of us, those people of [the far future]? One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery. They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys; the enslavement of women and girls; they won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. A love story, perhaps?”
Pat Barker tells the story of living in a rape camp.
I’m impressed by this novel on multiple levels, although it took a while to grab me. The language is plain. So much literary writing at present is ambitious in its use of language and form, but Barker, speaking as Briseis, keeps it straight. Sometimes that can read flat. It also serves to make the occasional excursions into the supernatural – the appearance of gods, the workings of gods – startling, at first seeming incongruous. But Homer’s language is stark, and incursions by the gods are a fact of life in The Iliad, so: so be it.
I’ll say only that I’m unused to magical realism where the realism so lacks in magic and the magic is so matter of fact.
Another thing that startles is Barker’s occasional references to northern European physical attributes: Achilles’ silver hair, his cousin Ajax’s blondness, a doctor’s green eyes, a king’s grey eyes. Ethnicity in the ancient world is a contested area, but the Achaeans as described by Homer are not the dark-eyed, olive-skinned peoples of the later Mediterranean worlds. That said, it’s curious Barker chooses to introduce this element, particularly since the language her characters use is neither archaic nor contemporary but instead, faintly anachronistic, as if the writer is still immersed in the world of the Great War 1914-18 and British Imperialism, or perhaps is suggesting analogies.
Barker doesn’t describe Briseis’s appearance directly. From the comments of others, its plain she’s very beautiful: elegant but with (sorry) huge knockers. Her breasts announce her. (Really. It’s in the text.)
Homeric legend is more explicit: Homer’s Briseis is lauded for her golden hair, blue eyes and fair skin.
I found, when I did some research after reading, that the name “Briseis” simply means “daughter of Brisis”, just as the name of Agamemnon’s girl, Chryseis, means “daughter of Chrysis”. To borrow from Margaret Atwood, and The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s like calling a character “Offred” (‘Of Fred’), except with reference to the father as patriarch rather than the sexual master. Briseis could equally be “Ofachilles”, Chryseis “Ofagamemnon”.
Briseis’s actual given name, according to legend, was Hippodameia. My Greek is rudimentary, but I believe that might translate as “Horsegoddess”, which casts a wholly different light on Briseis’s symbolic role in The Iliad. (I see, too, that the Trojan hero Hector’s wife Andromache might translate as “man killer”, which likewise positions her differently, as a kind of Amazon – the Amazons came to Troy’s aid as allies. It could also translate as “manly fighting spirit”. After Achilles killed her husband, and her infant son was flung from the walls of Troy, Andromache was given as a sex slave to Achilles’s adolescent son.)
This is such an interesting book, and I do not want any comment of mine to denigrate it, but I think what I took away that troubled me most is this:
Briseis is attempting to author her own story. She is represented as telling the tale of her captivity many years later, having turned her back on the sand dunes of the Greek camp as a 19 year old, boarded a ship to a new life, and made that a full and fascinating life (by her own account): “Once, not so long ago, I tried to walk out of Achilles’ story – and failed. Now, my own story can begin.”
Good for her.
My problem is this.
Pat Barker tells most of The Silence of The Girls in Briseis’s voice. But there are things Briseis cannot know and cannot tell. So in the second half of the book, there are sequences told in the third person from the point of view of Achilles. These sequences are for me the most compelling and effective parts of the novel. These sequences – not least the visit by King Priam of Troy to Achilles to ransom his son Hector’s body – have an emotional charge that leaves much of Briseis’s narrative pallid by comparison. (Briseis’s voice does share the telling the Priam episode. But it’s Achilles’ perspectives that carry the charge.)
Is it the age old problem that the Devil has all the best tunes? That sociopaths are more compelling than victims? That the sins and sufferings of violent men are stories we are acculturated to attend to, that we can’t look away from violent men, though we turn away, time and again, from beaten women?
After an entire novel that purports to be a platform for Briseis to speak for herself, and her sisters, is this, in the end, what’s meant by The Silence of The Girls?
My favourite paragraphs from The Silence of The Girls:
There’s a story he once chased the god Apollo all over the plains of Troy. Cornered at last, Apollo is supposed to have said: “You can’t kill me, I’m immortal.” “Ah, yes,” Achilles replied. “But we both know if you weren’t immortal, you’d be dead.”
Nobody was ever allowed the last word; not even a god.
The Lenny novella was written mostly in mid-2012, with one chapter, Death, written late 2013, then the conclusion in early 2018, six years after its inception.
There’s a range of reasons I abandoned it for so long (other than that I was embarrassed by it).
These include concerns about:
The hysterical tone and narrative content.
Cultural appropriation and pastiche.
How to end the narrative.
So, some thoughts on those points.
The first 12,000 words were written essentially in one burst, immediately after I was sacked from a temp admin job, where, among other things, I’d failed to prepare coffee and tea for senior staff and clients to the corporate standard.
I was in that temp job after leaving my previous admin job due to injuring my back, an injury that completely incapacitated me for about five weeks and left me unable to move without pain for just over three months. I’d attempted a return to work, but the firm where I worked was unwilling to modify my tasks: three hours every morning continued to be rote mechanical movement with a twist from the waist (don’t ask).
It’s fair to say I felt evil towards the corporate workplace.
It’s fair to say I had a track record as a misfit in conventional workplaces. I despaired of finding employment again. In fact, I haven’t worked fulltime since then.
But Lenny’s hysteria has other origins.
I’d experienced occasional panic attacks over the previous five or so years, and one way back when I was 18 or 19. At that time I worked in the Australian rock music industry, and being backstage was a way of life. On this occasion something had happened earlier in the night that distressed me hugely; when I went to leave, I could not find the exit. I could not see a door, or figure out the direction to get outside. I was standing on a stage with road crew loading up all around me, panicking. I grabbed a friend I trusted – and screamed “Jim! I cannot find my way out!” He looked at me oddly, half turned, pointed, and said “There”.
There was a missing wall with a truck parked halfway through it. There was a roller door fully opened. There was the night sky. Black and stars.
I didn’t identify that as a panic attack as I’d never heard that term. But if someone had used the words “Panic attack” that night, I would have recognised myself immediately.
Lenny is, in effect, one long panic attack. That might make it hard to read. Or unreadable.
Cultural appropriation and pastiche
The Lenny novella is set in a world that shares recognisable elements with ours but is not ours. In among the fantasy elements, I have lifted imagery from many cultures, notably Japan and Silk Road cultures: China, Persia, Moghul India. I have lifted elements from the myths of many cultures. It might be worth mentioning the post-graduate thesis I attempted was on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Celtic Literature.
I didn’t lift images and narrative elements to disrespect these cultures. But I do understand many readers are uncomfortable with privileged white people using the symbologies of other cultures in cavalier ways.
At the time I began Lenny I was frankly unaware of that debate. I chose to create a cultural hybrid fantasy world partly for the beauty of those varied elements and partly to distinguish this world from the reality (realities) we live in. If I thought about it, I thought of it as a postmodern pastiche.
I needed to distinguish Lenny’s world from ours because this is not a factual tale. At the same time, I needed to retain ties to the world as we know it to ensure the themes – genocide, child soldiers, institutional abuse, collaboration and collusion – recognisably relate to this world. I plucked names ad hoc from different languages and cultures, mostly European, to draw attention to parallels between the events in this story and events during the Bosnian War and in World War II.
I pilfered parts of other people’s stories. A big slab of Lenny’s opening address is straight from the experiences of a Bosnian Muslim combat veteran who I met in 2002 when he was a refugee. Thank you, Sakib Mustafic. The woman who steps from a helicopter at the conclusion is an homage to my friends Tara Young, an Australian Iraq War combat veteran, and Dr Barb Wigley, who manages refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa.
The figure of the Investigator is a tribute to my friend Robyn Dixon, a foreign correspondent since 1993.
The dragons come from the west. Not “the West”. There is no political partisanship intended there.
The way I had set up this narrative there is no escape for these children. I grew more and more depressed, realising any device I used to extract them would be wishful thinking. These children were doomed. Then this morning, I was listening to talkback radio, listening to a woman my age (57) say there was no prospect of employment for her after years of disability. A short while back, a very short while back, I would have echoed her belief. But my instinctive response was, “No! I have two jobs – casual jobs, it’s true, but jobs I love, and I love the life those jobs make possible!”
I might be the lucky exception, but luck does exist: exceptions do exist. The unlikely, the providential, can happen.
I thought, if I am an exception, why should I not allow my characters a Deus Ex Machina? A God from above?
So I sent them helicopters. I rescued them.
Also, as Lenny discusses at the end, these are children. What are adults for, if not to protect children? I, as author, can do that. I am the adult here.
So, I let them live.
Lenny says she can’t speak to the rightness or wrongness of those helicopters being there. I can’t either, and I don’t. This tale is not a justification for wars of foreign intervention.
Quite apart from my pique at being sacked as an admin temp, this story was prompted by issues raised by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, the court of last resort for crimes of genocide, and by the Court of Human Rights. It might seem to allude to Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Syria, even institutional child sex abuse as in the Roman Catholic Church internationally. It is not “about” any one of those phenomena specifically. It is “about” social prejudice, exclusion, discrimination and persecution as social and political phenomena.
Plagiarism and due credit
As soon as I wrote that ending, I recognised my borrowings from John Wyndham’s classic The Chrysalids. I loved The Chrysalids as a child. Two years back I repurchased a copy, which sits on my bookshelves, unread. I hadn’t realised how much Lenny’s narrative owes to The Chrysalids till today.
Call it postmodern. Call it homage.
All elements of homage are unintended, with love, or intended, with respect.
By the way – the photographs in the Lenny novella blog post, almost all, are mine. Other images I’ve lifted can be identified by doing a reverse images search. When I get a moment, I will do a list of credits and update the post.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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 Philadelphia, United 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 Ulstercounties of Donegal, Tyrone 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 […]
Let’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–
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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?
Edmund White states in his Afterword that in this slim novella, Such Small Hands, Spanish writer Andres Barba “has returned us to the nightmare of childhood”.
Maybe it’s a Spanish thing. Of the many pop culture associations that sprang to my mind reading Such Small Hands, perhaps the closest is the 2006 Spanish film Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno), written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Pan’s Labyrinth is as dark a nightmare of childhood as I could ever accommodate.
Truth to tell, I find myself pushing away this small book because it’s just too dark.
I find myself dismissing it as a kind of party trick, a Halloween party trick. Very clever, very skilled. Very scary. Nothing to do with me or mine.
If I were an agent, pitching this tale, I’d pitch it as an all-girl Lord of the Flies set in an orphanage, meets Courtney Love singing Doll Parts. Meets Euripides’ The Bacchae.
Plus Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
With that scene from Barbarella with the vicious dolls. And Anita Pallenberg as the Grand Tyrant.
I’m not an agent, and some things get under my skin.
This tale is apparently based on a real-life incident in an orphanage in Brazil in about 1960. The presenting circumstance is that a child is orphaned: a child loses her parents. With her parents, she loses her protections in life. Much as the child did in Pan’s Labyrinth.
Wake up you sleepy head Put on some clothes, shake up your bed Put another log on the fire for me I’ve made some breakfast and coffee Look out my window what do I see A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me All the nightmares came today And it looks as though they’re here to stay […] I think about a world to come Where the books were found by the golden ones Written in pain, written in awe By a puzzled man who questioned What we were here for All the strangers came today And it looks as though they’re here to stay
What if your spouse went missing for seven years then apparently returns – only it’s not him, and this person who claims to be the man you loved appears to have a mysterious, vindictive agenda?
I sat up past midnight gulping this book, forgetting I had work the next day.
I didn’t plan to write a full review, mostly because I can’t do that without spoilers.
Suffice to say, on the best seller, airport reading level, essentially it’s a nightmare, gender-reversed version of the Hollywood staple My Favorite Wife/Something’s Gotta Give/Move Over Darling, though the author casts it in terms of classic dark folk tales, primarily Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. There are chips of ice in the heart. Lost love. Dark woods and winding paths.
On serious levels, it’s a meditation on love, guilt, and memory. On marriage. With Radiohead as its soundtrack. (The beloved also loved Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Tom Waits. There might be an echo of Orpheus and Eurydice here.)
The novel is rich in allusions: The Return of Martin Guerre, the 1982 French film starring Gerard Depardieu, based on a sixteenth-century incident. Sommersby, the 1993 Hollywood remake starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere. Homer’s Penelope and Odysseus. The scar on Odysseus’s thigh, the testimony of the aged dog, the knowingness of the marital bed.
Is this man who returns to Sarah, Philip? (The names are significant: Phil being the ancient Greek etymology for ‘love; lover’; Sarah meaning ‘princess’, which was Philip’s nickname for her. There is also the shadow figure, Vincent. Vincent means ‘conqueror’.) Is this man her husband? Or is he a psychopath? Or is this stranger both?
I kept thinking of Hamlet. Hamlet is on a mission of revenge. He is fuelled with righteous rage, based on his belief in murder, conspiracy and betrayal. Yet Hamlet is uncertain. Uncertainty stays his hand. Who is this woman, this woman he claims as his wife?
When I outlined this plot to my sister, she insisted even after twenty years apart she could never not recognise her husband. She could never confuse her husband with a stranger. No ambiguity.
Melanie Raabe stacks the decks to create a plausible context. But her central inquiry – who is the person I married? who is the person I claim to love? – resonates broadly.
Eva and Hans Kristian Rausing early in their marriage
The eye of the storm is a locked bedroom: it stinks, drug paraphernalia and littered clothes strewn about, drug dealers’ phone numbers penned on the walls. At the very centre is someone who is now dead.
That much is common to many drug tragedies. Flung from the storm’s centre are children, four of them, primary school aged. Clutching for the children are adults, siblings and parents of the drug-affected pair; and spiralling out from the distraught adults are lawyers, police, specialist doctors, psychoanalysts, rehab staff, staff at the children’s schools, distressed friends, well-wishers, haters, readers of mass circulation tabloids, writers and directors and stagers of operas, casual internet trawlers and readers of this book.
… an old English term for the crime of maiming. The term implies guilt, which is appropriate in this context, since there is no addict story that doesn’t revolve around guilt, shame and judgement. The guilt is indiscriminate, and so is the shame. We were all guilty, and none of us were guilty. We were all shamed, and we absorbed the shame.
Sigrid Rausing’s account of her brother’s and sister-in-law’s drug addictions, and the havoc wreaked by addiction, is at its centre not so very different from every other addict story. The story has some sensational embellishments that made it a public scandal. It could be ripped from the pages of a Stieg Larsson thriller: The Girl with the Flaming Stigma. It’s also made distinctive by how extraordinary Rausing’s writing is, by how painstakingly she steers her course between restraint and suppressed fury, by how intelligently she attempts to analyse and contain the issues and emotions stirred up by the cyclone that is addiction.
Rausing’s account is many things.
If you do not tell your stories others will tell them for you, and they will vulgarize and degrade you, said Ishmael Reed, quoting George Bernard Shaw.
I write, know that writing at all may be seen as a betrayal of family; a shaming, exploitative, act [how much do I love that extra comma]. Anyone reading this who thinks so, please know that I thought it before you. Anyone who thinks so, consider also how we were brought up: wealth, privacy, silence, discretion.
But someone died, early one morning or late one night.
When someone dies this way, must someone wear the guilt?
The story, its centre, can be schematised:
Hans Kristian Rausing, an heir to the TetraPak fortune, worth billions, develops a heroin addiction at age 19 or 20 on the beaches of Goa, in India.
Years later, in rehab, he meets a fellow recovering addict named Eva Kemeny. They marry, have four children, lead a drug-free life as wealthy philanthropists funding addiction recovery programs.
Eight years after their wedding, Eva and Hans celebrate the new millennium on New Years Eve 2000 with a glass or several of champagne. It is the end of their sobriety. The next 12 years are a whirlwind that tears their lives apart, culminating in that death in that bedroom in July 2012.
Should I say more?
I can only imagine the shame, the pain, Sigrid Rausing must have felt putting words to what happened.
The Rausings, Hans and Eva, had lived in a mansion in Cadogan Place, in Belgravia, possibly the most exclusive and expensive location in London. The mansion was maintained impeccably by their staff – except for the bedroom on the second level, the epicentre of the couple’s drug world, forbidden to all others.
When Eva died, sometime either late at night or before dawn, Hans was present, but could not cope with her death. Instead of reporting her death and ensuring proper procedures were followed, he heaped clothes, doonas, TV sets on her body, wrapped it in a blue tarpaulin, apparently sprinkled it with baby powder (to absorb the smell?), and continued in his drug nightmare until two months later, when some police officers stopped his car on Wandsworth Bridge, searched the car, found drugs, searched his home under warrant, and found Eva.
She was identified by a partial thumb print and by the pacemaker implanted six years earlier to support her damaged heart muscle.
Eva’s immediate cause of death was determined to be heart failure caused by inhaling crack cocaine. Hans Kristian was charged with preventing Eva’s lawful burial. He was sentenced to two years, suspended, with the requirement that he undergo a two-year rehabilitation program.
Then things took a weird(er) turn. Eva had been in communication with journalists and police in Sweden, claiming Hans’s father, Hans Rausing Snr, had ordered the hit on Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, who was fatally shot after a night at the cinema in 1986.
Eva was very often irrational across those years of relapse, sending threatening, quite psychotic emails and texts to Sigrid (and others?) with a frequency and degree of implied violence that constitutes harassment. She wrote in her texts and emails that she was omniscient, omnipotent; she hurled black magic curses. The investigative journalist to whom she sent her accusations against Rausing Snr did not publicly disclose Eva’s allegations until after her death, suspecting they were unreliable, not least because Eva admitted she had gained her information through a revelatory dream, a vision she admitted was not her first.
In a letter to a jailed killer she wrote
One morning, I woke up and looked over at my husband, who was asleep, and I swear, the thought came to me loud and clear. […] I’m scared. What I think that they could do is come into the house, gas me with some sort of sleeping gas, then they could deliberately give me an overdose of some drug or other and then, worst of all, they leave a note in what looks like my handwriting. Help! I know this sounds very far-fetched and completely paranoid but I swear to you these people are capable of anything.
Swedish police made no comment, as is their policy with ongoing investigations. In Sweden, where there is no statute of limitation, all investigations are officially ongoing.
In Sweden, Eva’s revelations were incendiary.
The background is complicated – changes in Swedish legislation in the 1970s and early ‘80s that proposed unions buy increasing shares in privately owned companies to become majority stakeholders – but Sigrid Rausing is adamant:
Eva’s idea, therefore, that Olof Palme had constituted a threat against the company may have been true in the 1970s, but by 1986 it certainly wasn’t true any more. And every newspaper editor in Sweden knew that.
It was Nordic noir, Scandi noir, at its blackest. In 2016 an opera was staged in Sweden with Hans Kristian and Eva centre stage, Sigrid, her siblings and her parents presented as agents of doom. The director sent a copy of the libretto to the family for comment.
The charge against Sigrid and her sister, Lisbeth, is that they took the children. Sigrid took the children; Eva couldn’t live with that and so she died.
Much of Mayhem is Sigrid wrestling with issues of guilt. Trained as a social anthropologist, a longtime proponent of psychoanalysis, Sigrid thinks like a philosopher. She worries away at issues of guilt, of culpability, of agency, from every angle she can conceive of. She is insightful, intellectual, intuitive. She is devastated.
One thing she never traces in her writing is the possibility that the children could have remained with their parents. Could that have made the difference? Could that have benefited the children, saved Eva Rausing?
Eva always believed so, and so, apparently, did Eva’s parents.
Could those four young children have lived downstairs in that mansion in Cadogan Place, maybe gone to boarding school, maybe as week-day boarders, cared for by staff, visited by relatives – and all would have been well?
Could those young children have been kept innocent of the darkness at the centre of that house, the room that was their parents’?
Sigrid and Lisbeth spent 2007/08 in court with lawyers arguing the case that this wasn’t possible. Courts are loathe to remove children from their parents, from their home. Yet the courts determined the children could no longer live with these parents.
The court action was prompted by a report from Social Services after Hans Kristian dropped out of yet another attempt at rehab. Social Services had informed Sigrid and Lisbeth that action would be taken to protect the children, and that if the children were taken into care by the state, the four siblings would most likely be split up.
Sigrid had been a director of the NSPCC – Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She knew what this meant.
Dedicated to Hans and Eva’s four children. For legal reasons, they cannot be named in this book. That is one of the many reasons why the text remains as partial and unfinished as it is, since these young people, alongside my own son Daniel, were, and are, an indelible part of my life.
I thank them for their patience, their humour and their courage.