Tuesday, March 15, 2011

the last book I read

The War Zone by Alexander Stuart.

Tom is a teenage boy, a bit surly and angst-y, as adolescent boys are; his mood hasn't been helped by the family moving from London down to rural Devon. There's Tom, his big sister Jessie, their mother, who's just about to give birth to another child (who turns out to be a boy, Jack), and their father.

Settling in proves difficult, as it always is for teenagers - there's the usual surly locals to deal with, most of whom have got their greasy cider-crazed eyes on Jessie. As if that weren't enough, it turns out Jessie is already fucking someone in the village. As if that weren't enough, it turns out it's Dad.

Mum's in and out of the picture what with occasional trips to the hospital, so Tom takes it upon himself to confront Jessie about it. The trouble is that Jessie, always the self-possessed and independent one, doesn't conform to the expected role of victim, and, while acknowledging the reality of what's going on, doesn't seem particularly guilt-stricken or remorseful about it; viewing it as just an extension of her instinctive risk-taking behaviour.

Inevitably, this sort of thing can't be kept a secret for long, and things come to a head, people (Mum, some people in the village) find out, and there is a dramatic three-way confrontation between Tom and Dad and Jessie, during which Tom stabs Dad with a fruit knife and then flees to London for a bit of symbolic fiery destruction of one of his Dad's projects (Dad is an architect, by the way).

Eventually we get an epilogue, five years or so later: Tom is on his way to an unnamed Caribbean island to meet up with Jessie, who is living over there. Mum and Dad (who survived the fruit knife stabbing incident) have separated, scarcely surprisingly, but Tom is sort of still in touch with both of them. Jessie has taken up with a German architect, older than her, and with a pre-existing live-in lover, so certain patterns are being re-enacted. During the course of a drink-and-drug-fuelled evening, things are sort of resolved, or, at least, a sort of catharsis is achieved, though not in a way most "normal" people would recognise.

Now I'm sure you'll agree that incest isn't the cheeriest or most cuddly topic for a novel, and it's scarcely surprising that this novel caused a certain amount of controversy when it was first published, to the extent of being awarded and then almost immediately stripped of the 1989 Whitbread Prize (in favour of Lindsay Clarke's The Chymical Wedding). It was also made into an equally controversial film in 1999, directed by Tim Roth; by a strange coincidence this also starred the lovely Kate Ashfield in a minor role.

It's all pretty harrowing stuff, although it does have a slightly raw, uneven tone - the bizarre interlude at Jessie's friend Sonny's flat in London seems a bit incongruous, and serves mainly to set up the fairly obvious plot twist on the penultimate page. But if you're going to tackle incest seriously then harrowing and brutal seems like the way to go; you're not really going to get a romantic comedy out of it.

Other novels I've read (and can think of off the top of my head) which tackle incest are:
All of those were brother/sister incest; I'm not saying this is any more excusable, but it does avoid some of the notions of abuse of trust and power and the overtones of rape that The War Zone tackles - for all Jessie's surface toughness and ability to rationalise things to the extent of convincing herself that she's in control of the situation this is clearly an account of an horrifically exploitative abuse of power with long-lasting effects, as the epilogue makes clear. I wouldn't say it's a novel one would exactly enjoy reading, it's a bit too much like being beaten up for that, but it's impressive all the same.

No comments: