Elly McDonald

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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.

Grace_Paul_Lynch_Elly_McDonald_Writer

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?

Grace_Paul_Lynch_Elly_McDonald_Writer_5


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

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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: 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)


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Review: The Stranger (2017) by Melanie Raabe – Die Falle, translated from the German by Imogen Taylor

The_Stranger_Melanie_RaabeWhat 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.

I’m not so certain myself.

Melanie_Raabe

Melanie Raabe

 


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#MeToo and the angry women

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I don’t remember the joke now but the punchline was something like “I’m long and thick and I come fast”.

The joker was my boss. I was his assistant. The mediator our company provided when I made a formal complaint began by explaining he was internal to the company and had worked with my boss previously on leadership trainings and was his mentor, but that there was no conflict of interest. He then explained to me that a boss-assistant relationship is like a marriage: it was my job to make it work.

He asked me why I persisted with my complaint – my complaints. Why didn’t I just find another job? I explained it was 2008, it was the middle of a GFC (Global Financial Crisis, for those with short memories), and as a 47 year old single woman with no savings I was not about to voluntarily resign and make myself unemployed just because my boss was a jerk.

I voluntarily resigned and made myself unemployed.

I am reminded of this farcical episode in my employment history by the current #MeToo debates on social media. Anyone who’s read other blog posts by me knows gender politics is my recurring theme, and that a number of my memoir blog posts engage with workplace and institutional sexual politics. I am now revisiting my blog posts adding in a new Category: Gender politics.

I’m particularly gripped by the recent upsurge of debate about women and anger. (Note: additional new Category?) How do women express anger? How can women express anger? Is an angry woman automatically an hysterical woman, an irrational woman, an ugly woman? Is she a turn-off? If we turn off, is there some way she can make her case heard?

Australian novelist Charlotte Woods wrote an excellent piece about women and anger for The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/18/charlotte-wood-were-told-female-anger-is-finding-its-moment-but-i-cant-trust-it?CMP=soc_567

There was also an excellent piece in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/11/all-the-angry-ladies/545042/

2007 Young Australian Muslim of the Year and 2010 Young Queenslander of the Year Yassmin Abdel-Magied – who in 2012 was also awarded Young Leader of the Year in the Australian Financial Review and Westpac’s inaugural 100 Women of Influence Awards and was an InStyle ‘Cultural Leader’ and a Marie Claire Woman of the Future, and subsequently honoured as Youth of the Year in the Australian Muslim Achievement Awards – has faced the consequences of expressing anger publicly.

She writes about the blowback in her autobiography, Yassmin’s Story (Penguin Random House 2016), published at age 24: https://www.penguin.com.au/books/yassmins-story-9780857986177

Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard did a classic angry woman speech in parliament in 2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOPsxpMzYw4

Yesterday while I was filing for my current boss (male), we commented on our mutual admiration for Gillian Triggs, former professor at the Melbourne Law School, former Dean of the Sydney Law School (Challis Professor of International Law 2007-2012), Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner of Australia’s Human Rights Commission 2012/2013, till 2017 President of the HRC, currently the Acting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner.

My boss and I were present when Professor Triggs spoke last month about how as a woman she’s perceived it necessary to present a studied veneer of rational calm, even when discussing egregious human rights abuses.

Yesterday I told my boss I see Professor Triggs, along with Hillary Clinton, as one of my “Elizabeth I women”:

“I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” (attributed to Queen Elizabeth I of England addressing her troops at Tilbury, on the eve of the expected Spanish armada invasion)

Hillary Clinton writes about this carapace of calm and rationality in her most recent book, What Happened. https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/tag/hillary-clinton/ 

In her book Clinton never mentions the characterization of Claire Underwood in the U.S. Netflix series House of Cards. I always wondered how actors who are publicly Democrat activists could collude in a fictionalized hatchet job on the Democrats’ best recent prospect for presidential election. But then, political journalist Joe Klein already did that number on Hillary, back in 1996, with his roman a clef Primary Colors, which painted Hillary as an abusive, conscienceless harpy. Guess nobody likes an angry woman, huh?

Promoting her book, Clinton unleashed years of pent-up anger:

http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/hillary-clinton:-the-interview/9055256

But for me, the most rivetting expression of women’s anger in the current #MeToo furore is Uma Thurman’s initial response on being questioned about Harvey Weinstein, her producer in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrWG6UmqkBw&feature=youtu.be

What I find most interesting about Thurman’s initial response is her awareness of how her anger might be heard and her willingness to take responsibility for the expression of her anger.

Famously, Uma’s father is the prominent Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. It’s not inconceivable Uma’s response to public questioning owes something to Buddhist teachings, such as those expounded by Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Anger: Wisdom for cooling the flames.

Thay (as Thich Nhat Hanh’s followers call him) views the unmindful expression of anger as analagous to pouring gasoline on fire. Social scientists back him up: research suggests that when we “rehearse” anger – that is, when uncontrolled expression of anger is our habitual recourse – anger becomes our default. Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, is not a useful mode for problem-solving or bridge-building. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings influenced Martin Luther King’s advocacy of non-violent protest during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Thich Nhat Hanh promoted non-violence – in thought, word and deed – as the basis for workable peace talks during the Vietnam War.

Through this Buddhist lens, it’s not that we’re not entitled to our anger, it’s not that our anger is not justified – it’s the pragmatic issue, how does our anger serve us in this situation? Does it energise us to pursue justice and equity in productive ways? Does it help clarify the issues for us and others? Does it inspire and engage?

If the answers are yes, go right ahead: anger is working for you.

If on the other hand anger consumes us and immobilizes, cancels us out of the conversation, creates barriers to solutions, then maybe we might reconsider how best to get our objectives met, to best serve our cause.

It doesn’t need to involve un-sexing ourselves (like Lady Macbeth), or becoming an Elizabeth I woman, if being an Elizabeth I impairs us.

You don’t have to buy it. But here, for interest, are some words by Thich Nhat Hanh:

Anger is an unpleasant feeling.  It is like a blazing flame that burns up our self-control and causes us to say and do things that we regret later.  When someone is angry, we can see clearly that he or she is abiding in hell.  Anger and hatred are the materials from which hell is made. […]

When we are angry, we are not usually inclined to return to ourselves [i.e. to remain aware].  We want to think about the person who is making us angry, to think about his hateful aspects—his rudeness, dishonesty, cruelty, maliciousness, and so on.  The more we think about him, listen to him, or look at him, the more our anger flares. […]

It is best if we do not listen to or look at the person whom we consider to be the cause of our anger.  Like a fireman, we have to pour water on the blaze first and not waste time looking for the one who set the house on fire.“Breathing in, I know that I am angry.  Breathing out, I know that I must put all my energy into caring for my anger.”  So we avoid thinking about the other person, and we refrain from doing or saying anything as long as our anger persists.  If we put all our mind into observing our anger, we will avoid doing any damage that we may regret later.

When we are angry, our anger is our very self.  To suppress or chase it away is to suppress or chase away our self.  When we are joyful, we are the joy.  When we are angry, we are the anger.  When anger is born in us, we can be aware that anger is an energy in us, and we can accept that energy in order to transform it into another kind of energy.

Then again. In my own life, there’s not a great distance between how Charlotte Woods writes, in her novel, The Natural Way of Things (Allen & Unwin 2016), and how I wrote, on the same themes. Tea, anyone?

https://ellymcdonaldwriter.com/2016/01/14/tea-2012/


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Review: History of Wolves (2017) by Emily Fridlund

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Spoiler alert: contains plot details

I read History of Wolves immediately after reading Emma Cline’s The Girls (2016), and in some ways it’s a weirdly apt follow-up. Both are first novels by prodigiously talented young women writers.

Both are first person narratives told by damaged adult women recalling their young teen selves. In both cases the young teen selves are friendless and neglected, in Cline’s case living with material privilege, in Fridlund’s with privation. Both girls are desperate to be seen and to belong, and both form crushes on young women. Both stories centre on cults, and the consequences of cult beliefs, especially as promoted by male leader figures. Both discuss grooming and sexual exploitation (Fridlund in unpredictable ways). Both novels culminate in the death of innocents.

The strapline for History of Wolves is ‘How far would you go to belong?’, which could equally market The Girls.

But where The Girls is based on a notorious real-life crime (the Tate murders by Charles Manson’s followers), Fridlund’s novel is less sensational, much more subtle.

Emma Cline has said her central interest in writing The Girls was to explore the dynamics of relationships between adolescent girls; mapping that onto the lurid background of cults and massacre was a writing challenge she set herself.

Fridlund sets her story in a more mundane environment, where boredom and loneliness are the bogeymen her central character most fears.

Madeline – known as Linda, called ‘Freak’ or ‘Commie’ by her school peers, sometimes called Mattie, or Jane, or Janet – lives on a lake in frozen northern Minnesota, on a rural lot of woodland that formerly housed a commune. The commune disintegrated when she was about 7, leaving just her and her parents, who she speculates might not even be her actual parents, given children in the commune were raised in common.

Linda doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t know who named her or why. She does not feel wanted or valued. She does not feel nurtured by her critical mother or her mostly silent father. She is underfed and overladen with survival tasks.

Linda is a wolf, without a pack.

Linda so desperately wants to be seen and wanted that she tries to seduce a pedophile – and fails. Instead, the pedophile fixates on beautiful Lily, who makes “people feel encouraged, blessed”. Linda makes people feel judged.

On the back of this rejection, Linda targets a young mother who, with her infant son and husband, has recently moved into a house across a narrow neck of lake. She has more success here: Patra (also known as Cleo or Patty, Patty Pea or Patty Cakes) is also lonely, with her scientist husband Leo frequently away, and Patra wants help with her four year old, Paul.

More pertinently, as the astute Linda observes, “Didn’t she always need someone to watch her and approve? And wasn’t I better at that than anyone?”

Linda is a watcher. She’s a stalker. She watches the pedophile and Lily. She stalks them. She watches Patra and her family across the lake through their house’s large windows. At various points she spies on Patra and Leo having oral sex, she slips into their darkened house when she thinks they’re out, she cyberstalks Patra, the pedophile and Lily in later life. She sends letters about intimate matters that should not be her concern and leaves anonymous gifts. She appropriates belongings. Her boundaries are porous.

Arguably Linda is a kind of ghost, a silent sinister being without substance. Fridlund references gothic horror: Jane Eyre, “the governess”, and that other governess, in Henry James’ classic horror story, The Turn of The Screw. In The Turn of The Screw, the governess, who might be sane but might be psychologically unhinged, believes her child charges are at risk from a pair of malevolent ghosts.

Or is it Leo and Patra who are types of ‘ghost’? It emerges their religious beliefs preclude matter, insist there is only spirit. Are they a couple who present a risk to the child in Linda’s care?

Wolves

Linda watches.

Linda is so focused on watching Patra, so obsessive seeking to secure Patra’s attentions, that she fails in her role as babysitter, or “governess”, to Paul. The fact is, Paul is sick. Linda knew that on some level from the outset. But she fails to comprehend why Paul’s parents, who dote on him, don’t recognise Paul is ill and do not seek medical care.

Linda’s parents neglect her materially and emotionally. Paul’s parents see their son as a pure expression of God, as perfect, but their religious beliefs preclude any acknowledgement that his physical being might suffer.

Leo and Patra are adherents of Christian Science, and follow the tenets of its founder, Mary Baker Eddy:

“Become conscious for a single moment that Life and intelligence are purely spiritual, – neither in nor of matter, – and the body will then utter no complaints.”

Leo and Patra believe that mind determines all. If we think we are well, we will be well. If we think we are happy, we are happy. The only vulnerability is a negative mindset.

The key questions for Linda are

“What’s the difference between what you want to believe and what you do? That’s the question I should have asked Patra”

and

“And what’s the difference between what you think and what you end up doing? That’s the question I should have asked [the pedophile]”.

Linda wrestles with whether there’s a distinction between thought and act. If we think something, is that thought ‘real’, even if we do not enact it? Is it our truth? The pedophile ultimately thinks so: he accepts he is guilty, if not of the act, then of the thought.

So if Linda had the thought that without Leo and Paul, Patra would be hers, is she guilty, should Patra lose Paul and Leo? Is the illness of a child in this narrative in fact a McGuffin, a massive red herring? Is adult Linda sad, empty and angry not because she feels culpable about Paul but because she lost Patra?

It’s easy, and obvious, to read History of Wolves as a moral fable about child neglect. But I think it might be more complex. Emily Fridlund doesn’t conclude her tale after the court case. Instead, she concludes with a sexually charged sequence where Linda, a girl who (observed by a child) looks like a boy, imagines herself sexually assaulting Lily, almost as if she inhabits the psyche of the pedophile; and in imagining herself as the agent, imagines herself as the subject:

The violence in me is almost overwhelming. “That’s what you wanted, right? Just a kiss.”

And then there’s this. Even now, when those words move through my mind, like a curse or a wish, I become Lily […] I find I’m the one stranded in the boat, I’m the one shivering with cold, I feel everything and I’m the one wanted more than anything else.”

Underfed Lily is hungry, hungry like the wolf. Hungry like a pedophile driven by compulsion. Hungry to be “the one wanted more than anything else”.

This is not a tragedy about a young boy who dies. This is a horror story of a young girl werewolf who, in her desire to be “wanted more than anything else”, appropriates the objects of her desire and allows a young boy to die.

Emily_Fridlund

Author Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves


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Review: The Girls (2016) by Emma Cline

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Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten – Charles Manson’s “Girls”

Emma Cline’s The Girls is a serious novel, and seriously disturbing.

It’s a fictionalized reimagining of the Charles Manson “family” and the notorious murders perpetrated by Manson’s “girls” at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles in 1969.

Due to the salacious subject matter, and Emma Cline’s marketability, there was a bidding war for publishing rights in response to the book proposal. The project could have turned out grossly exploitative, but one of the attributes that makes Emma Cline marketable is her egregious talent: her novel is a stunning debut.

The Girls is a narrative told in the first person by Evie Boyd, within two timeframes: Evie aged about 61, and Evie aged 14, in 1969. Speaking as a 56 year old, I must immediately credit Cline with making an audacious choice, given the author was a mere 25 when The Girls was published. Her choice to inhabit the voice of a woman in her 60s is audacious but successful (though her mature Evie is outstandingly reflective – living through six decades doesn’t always result in this degree of insight).

Evie at 14 is painfully vivid. Cline is concerned with the vulnerabilities of adolescent girls: the ways the intense desire to belong, to be accepted within a friendship group or community, exposes them and makes them pliable, open to sexual exploitation and grooming. She’s concerned with formative adolescent sexual experiences and developing sexuality. She’s particularly concerned with the passionate feelings adolescent girls sometimes develop for each other and with older girls. Her Evie embodies all this.

Evie as a young girl is also a walking illustration of how we choose not to see, especially as adolescents, but also, for most of us, as we age. We choose not to recognize the obvious, if the obvious thwarts our illusions. We choose cognitive dissonance. We tell ourselves lies to make it all alright.

Evie is a privileged young girl from a wealthy, albeit troubled, background. She’s a socially isolated poor little rich girl. When she first sees “the girls”, gypsies, hippies, ‘free spirits’, she is immediately infatuated. When they take her to the hippy encampment on a ranch outside of San Francisco, she is seduced, literally and metaphorically, and wants nothing more than to join the girls as acolytes of Russell Hadrick, the cult leader Cline bases on Charles Manson.

Evie can see the hippy commune is dirty, disordered, dysfunctional, the small children underfoot feral and neglected, the adults semi-starved, drug addled inadequates. She can see they survive on petty criminality. But Evie is enamoured by the girls, most particularly Russell’s number one girl, Suzanne (based on Manson disciple Susan Atkins), and all that is ugly is wreathed in the glamour of her feelings for Suzanne and her desire to be seen, accepted, and loved.

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Susan Atkins

Evie gives herself sexually. She robs her mother. She joins in burglary forays, invading the homes of her own neighbours. She lies, cheats and steals for Suzanne, the girls and Russell. The question looms: would she kill?

To this point, the story could be a gothic allegory for more usual adolescent rites of passage – the crushes, the fervent group identifications, the sleazy manipulations of young girls by older men. But this story is based on the murders instigated by Charles Manson, so inevitably the narrative must engage with the much more extreme issues around killing fellow human beings.

If Cline simply retold the Manson story, fictionalizing names, attributing motivations and feelings, I think this project would be inexcusable. But she doesn’t do that. Instead, while allowing the narrative enough closeness to the Manson killings to acknowledge the real life scaffolding, she deliberately distances the story, geographically and in other ways, both to ensure the reader is pointed to the themes she most wishes to explore and, I believe, out of respect for Manson’s real life victims.

It would be unthinkable to recount in forensic terms precisely the ways the real life victims were slaughtered. That is not an entertainment. So instead of Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Steve Parent, the victims in The Girls are named as Linda, Christopher, Gwen, and Scotty, and the ways they meet their deaths are comparable to, but not identical to, the ways Sharon, Abigail, Jay, Wojciech and Steven were killed. The killers are not named as Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Linda Kasabian; Leslie Van Houten and Bobby Beausoleil are not named. Instead, the characters are Susan, Donna, Helen, Guy and Roos.

The LaBianca murders, perpetrated by Manson, Tex Watson and Manson’s girls the following night, are not mentioned. The Gary Hinman murder is only alluded to, without using names. The murders of James Willett and Don ‘Shorty’ Shea and the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford are outside the scope of Evie’s story.

The Hollywood actress Jennifer Jones’ 14 year old daughter Mary Jennifer Selznick, known by the Manson family as ‘Snake’ (because of how her hips swivelled during sex), is absent – or omnipresent, subsumed by Evie, who also, I would guess, incorporates aspects of Emma Cline.

Mary Jennifer SelznickThe fictional Evie Boyd owes her material comforts to the fortune built by her grandmother, a movie star. Emma Cline is the grand-daughter of the man who invented the Jacuzzi. Mary Jennifer died at age 21, leaping off a rooftop, either a suicide or an acid casualty. Emma Cline was a pubescent actress whose experiences in Los Angeles as a teen on the fringes of the entertainment world and later attempting to transition to a young adult actress were so demeaning she tossed it in and instead undertook a Masters of Fine Arts (Writing) at Columbia University in New York.

At Columbia, Emma Cline as a writing talent is remembered by one faculty member as “head and shoulders above everyone else”, which is born out by The Girls. She quickly progressed to writing for Salon, O Magazine and The New Yorker, with fiction in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House and Paris Review, before she was signed to a three-book fiction deal by Random House, for a rumoured $2 million.

The Girls, published in 2016, was shortlisted for the John Leonard Award from the National Book Critics Circle and the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. The following year Cline was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.

Her short stories to date tend to engage with similar themes to those explored in The Girls – how young girls navigate that potentially dangerous passage to adult sexuality. Emma Cline is on record saying she constantly wonders how she survived her teen years without crippling damage. The Girls asks, did Evie?

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Emma Cline