Pulling his punches

9781408707401Writing on this novel in the GuardianSarah Ditum begins: ‘Millennials might struggle to believe it, but there was a political world before the Manichean split of 9/11.’ She goes on to discuss the event that this novel centres around – the Seattle World Trade Organisation protests of 1999 – and the motives, tactics and solidarity of the protesters. Ditum’s opening gambit is obviously both ageist and inaccurate. From what I know of (relatively) young activists, they are acutely aware of earlier traditions of protest (ironically enough, Jenny Hendrix in the New York Times notes how the riots might be seen as ‘easily mocked millennial optimism’). But it still struck a nerve with me. Barely a teenager in 1999, I have to admit this was the first I’d heard of the WTO protests. They fall into that unfortunate gap where, for me, twentieth-century history ends (I teach modules up to 1989) and my personal political awareness begins (certainly no earlier than 2003). I considered feigning knowledge and reviewing this novel as if I was already well-aware of the WTO protests, but it seemed to me that would miss an interesting opportunity to discuss how authors manage the task of conveying knowledge to the reader, and judging how much knowledge the reader already possesses.

Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist pieces together a kaleidoscope of perspectives on the day of the protests, largely among either the police or the protesters, with the exception of interludes from the Sri Lankan delegate to the conference, Charles Wickramsinghe. Yapa’s writing as he jumps from head to head is frequently mesmerising, especially when he narrates from the point of view of Victor, a mixed-race nineteen-year-old who is the long-lost son of white police chief Bishop. As Victor takes part in a peaceful protest by chaining himself to other activists, their arms in tubes so it is difficult to get them apart, he is gassed and beaten by police. In the midst of his pain, his mind wanders to his absent mother: ‘Perhaps you spent a cold and shivering morning opening the soup line, from the time you were eight on up, from the early morning hours of the first school bell, fed the men who would spend all morning, perhaps all day, shivering in their thin clothes from warmer weathers and waiting for a job to come by in the form of a pickup truck and a wave and a whistle. Not so different from the whistle of her own childhood, she had once said to him, the steam-kettle shriek that had called his grandfather to the factory… Maybe it was a hundred cold mornings you spent with her. Even a thousand would not have been enough.’

Yapa’s beautiful writing, however, has the curious effect of flattening much of the action of this novel, lulling us too gently with the rhythm of his prose, rather than demanding the intense emotional engagement he seems to be after. This isn’t helped by the fact that from the point-of-view of certain, less well-realised characters – most notably John Henry, who acts as a figurehead for the cause – his writing is more vulnerable to purple missteps; after a while, I felt I was drowning under the weight of lines like ‘some force inexorably gathering around them here at the edge of the millennium’ and ‘their words had the quality of midnight prayer.’ In short, Yapa tells us so insistently that this is an important moment that he sometimes falls short of showing us, despite the visceral power of his descriptions of tear gas and police violence. It’s towards the climax of the novel, which is more solidly focused on action, that Your Heart comes fully into its own. In a way, this maps the trajectory of the protest itself; the long, heaving work of the march followed by a sudden explosion of pain; but it keeps the reader at quite a distance for much of the time.

To return to my own ignorance of the WTO protests, this sense of fuzziness was multiplied by the fact that Yapa makes little or no attempt to explain to the reader – at least until the introduction of Wickramsinghe’s narrative – what is at stake here. It isn’t even clear when the novel is set. Even assuming that many readers will know more of the context then I did, this still makes Your Heart feel oddly disengaged, despite its celebration of protest. If it felt more rooted in the particular issues of this protest, some of the flatness that I complained about above might dissipate. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and difficult to convey so much complicated information within the bounds of a novel, but I felt that Yapa might have made a better stab at it. Your Heart demonstrates his obvious talent, but I felt that its impact was muffled; more of a nudge than a punch.

I received a free e-copy of this novel from Little, Brown via NetGalley.

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