Winnie M. Li’s semi-fictionalised memoir, Dark Chapter, has received a fair amount of attention already, winning the Not the Booker Prize, and I decided that I should definitely find time for it after reading Naomi’s review on The Writes of Woman. Dark Chapter is a hard read because of its subject matter. Its protagonist, Vivian, is brutally raped and assaulted by a 15-year-old Irish Traveller, Johnny, while out walking near Belfast. The novel, switching between the points of view of Vivian and Johnny, tells the story of the rape and its aftermath.
I’ve written before about tackling rape in fiction, but Dark Chapter, of course, can’t quite be spoken about in this way because it draws from Li’s actual experience. Therefore, there are a number of things in Dark Chapter that, while perhaps limiting its critique of rape culture, cannot be held up as ‘criticisms’ of the story’s choices because this is the way it actually happened. Most obviously, we should all know that rape by a stranger is relatively rare; most women (and men) know their attacker before they are raped. Furthermore, if this were a straightforward novel, I would find Johnny’s isolation from his community (and the fact that his community is a relatively isolated and stigmatised group in its own right) a little troubling. The media likes to portray rapists as monsters, but what, of course, is so structurally bad about rape is the fact that it is so often committed by supposedly ‘ordinary’ men like Brock Turner – and the many, many Brock Turners out there who have either already got away with sexual violence or haven’t been put in the position yet where they are able to commit it. Dark Chapter partly addresses this by including Johnny’s point of view as well as Vivian’s, not to elicit the reader’s sympathy or to make excuses for him but to highlight his incomprehension of what he has done, how myths such as ‘girls always want it’ or ‘they always say yes when they mean no’ have infected his psyche. Nevertheless, because Johnny is an outcast, it’s relatively easier for readers to see him as an aberration rather than as a product of his culture. Again, I want to emphasise that this is not something that Dark Chapter does wrong – it’s a result of its status as both a memoir and a novel – and writing about one’s own experience of rape is a politically significant act in itself, even if that experience was not typical.
And it’s because Dark Chapter draws from Li’s actual experience that it does what it does do so well. While the central material of this story – the rape scene itself, Vivian’s trauma over reporting the incident to the police and undergoing a physical examination, the terrible ceremony of a rape trial – is all vividly written and deeply upsetting to read, it’s in the small details where Li really conveys both the horror and the frustration of Vivian’s ordeal. Immediately afterwards, she can barely take it in: ‘What about her hike? And why shouldn’t she just continue?… She still has enough time to cover the what… nine miles left in the trail… [But] in her rational mind, she knows she should get medical attention. As much as she wants to, she can’t escape what’s just happened.’ As she tries to tell people what has happened, she finds herself having to do the emotional labour of managing their emotions when she’s the one who deserves support; when she answers a work email ‘I’m sorry, but over the weekend I was assaulted and raped’ she ‘wonders if she should have sugar-coated that response. But why? It’s the truth. It wasn’t an accident. Someone raped her.’ Later, her friends convince her that she shouldn’t break the news in that way, but I was left thinking: why not? Surely she can break the news in whatever way she wants? It’s these insidious ways in which society shifts the burden of the rape on to the victim long after the actual assault is over that Li writes about so painfully well.
(As an aside, in the sections of the book that cover the period before the rape, Vivian remembers a number of ‘near-misses’ – although it’s hard to tell how near or far they were – where she was travelling alone and might have been assaulted, but wasn’t. This both highlights how living in a rape culture restricts women’s freedom of movement and is eerily reminiscent of Maggie O’Farrell’s haunting memoir I Am, I Am, I Am, where she recounts a sequence of her own near-death experiences, including one narrowly-escaped rape and murder).
Dark Chapter is also unique because while it’s hard not to read Vivian’s sections as a memoir, Johnny’s sections are, of course, imagined. And while I think it’s important that they were there, I found him a bit of a patchwork of a character. At times, it feels as if he’s just a living embodiment of a number of rape myths, not all of which work coherently together – it’s not clear, for example, whether he really believes that women all secretly want sex or whether he enjoys exerting power over his victims (he’s a serial assaulter). Obviously, the answer to this might be ‘both’, and plausibly so, but I thought a bit more could have been done to make him hang together. I can’t imagine how hard this must have been to write, so again, phrasing this as a criticism feels out of place, but this imbalance in the book, again, results from the way in which it sits between fact and fiction. Nevertheless, this is a hugely important read, and despite the difficult subject-matter, one that I also found almost impossible to put down.
Briefly, I also finished Kelly Luce’s debut novel, Pull Me Under, recently. While this felt refreshingly light after Dark Chapter, it also goes to some pretty dark places. Our protagonist, Rio, who is half-Japanese, killed a classmate with a letter-opener when she was a twelve-year-old at school in Japan, and, now an adult, has started a new life in the US under a different name. Neither her husband or her daughter – who is now twelve herself – know about her past. When Rio’s estranged father dies, she’s drawn back to Japan to attend his funeral, and starts trying to decipher a mysterious note he left her (she’s forgotten how to read kanji after all her years away). This all seems to have the makings of a fairly familar kind of literary thriller, but one of the good things about Pull Me Under is that its twists, while not dramatic, are consistently surprising. It ends up taking in ultra-marathons, pilgrimages, traditional Japanese legal exams, the joys of onigiri (especially the sour plum flavour) and how difficult it is to get vomit out of a tatami mat. It doesn’t quite fit neatly alongside other novels, and I didn’t find it surprising that the UK edition was published by a small independent press (Daunt Books). I suspect that not a lot of people will come across this, at least in the UK, but it deserves attention.
Coming up: I’ll be taking a break from this blog for the holidays, but after Christmas, I’ll be doing my usual Top Ten Books of 2017, checking out how I did with my 2017 reading goals, and – because I’ve just read so many wonderful books this year – probably writing an extra round-up of all the titles that didn’t quite make the Top Ten cut. I’m really looking forward to reading everybody else’s 2017 round-ups as well – and I hope you all have a relaxing break.