Monday, August 29, 2011

the last book I read

Notice by Heather Lewis.

Having a bad day? Our un-named narrator here is having a worse one, a whole unending succession of them in fact. Fleeing an abusive childhood and a spell in a juvenile institution, she dabbles with drugs and ends up working as a prostitute, picking up tricks in the car park of the local railway station.

As we join the proceedings she's just picked up a guy who seems to be after something a bit more spicy than the usual back-seat blow-job; he takes her home to meet his wife, Ingrid. After the moderately strange initial encounter - he makes her watch while he has anal sex with Ingrid on the living room carpet, and then takes her outside and fucks her on the bonnet of his car - a series of stranger sexual psychodramas is played out, always involving some S&M elements (bondage, belts, cigarette burns) and eventually involving the narrator moving into the couple's spare room. Which it transpires is spare because the couple's daughter (whose room it was) has left - whether by dying or just moving out it isn't clear, but there's a suspicion that the rough sex games are re-enacting some unspecified earlier abuse involving the daughter.

Eventually it becomes apparent that lives are going to be in danger if things continue, and the narrator engineers an escape. Kinky Bondage Incest Guy takes a fairly dim view of this, however, and shops her to the police, so that she gets arrested and sent to another institution for psychiatric evaluation. It's a bit of a mixed bag, this: on the upside she meets therapist Beth who seems to genuinely take an interest in her background and welfare, on the downside she is the subject of occasional rape by one of the male guards. Eventually Beth engineers her release on the condition that they continue their counselling sessions on the outside.

Once released the narrator resumes some of the elements of her old life - occasional visits to the station car park to pick up tricks, some of whom also have drugs to sell - but continues to see Beth. Things get more complicated when she and Beth start having a sexual relationship, though, doubly so because this is an unfamiliar sort of sex - more than just a business transaction or a raw assertion of power. Tell me more of this thing called love, James T Kirk.

Not really knowing how to deal with this sends our narrator into a tight spiral of picking up more and more dangerous tricks, getting abused by them and then getting some TLC from Beth while unloading a consignment of grief and guilt and remorse. Eventually a truly scary encounter with three of her former drug-dealing buddies and some guns and knives puts her out of action and forces some re-assessment of her life, and some searching questions: is she just doing this to feel alive after being numbed by her childhood experiences? Or is this just the increasingly reckless behaviour of someone who can't quite pluck up the courage to kill herself and is hoping someone else will eventually do the job for her?

Like the narrator, the town where all this happens and therefore the railway station which features heavily in the narrative are never named, but there's no doubt that we're on a one-way journey to Grimsville Central here. Unless you choose to detect a little bit of I Will Survive/what-does-not-kill-me-makes-me-stronger defiance in the last chapter then the whole book could be read as one long-drawn-out suicide note, all the more believably so as Heather Lewis killed herself in 2002. This, her third novel, was published two years later in 2004 - apparently it dates from between the first two novels to be published (House Rules in 1994 and The Second Suspect in 1998) but was rejected at the time for being too dark and explicit. It's certainly hard to see this being a "goer", commercially speaking, and like The War Zone it's hard to describe this as "enjoyable" in the conventional sense. Like The War Zone this is about the indelible nature of childhood abuse, and how it fucks up your chances of ever having normal adult relationships once the damage has been done to the delicate wiring of the brain. So while it's hard to empathise with the central character's twisted self-absorption and constant lapses into self-destructive behaviour, it's easy to sympathise; this is how abused people act.

It's hard to criticise a novel like this that was clearly wrenched out of some very real personal anguish, but it is a bit one-note: all the male characters are uniformly bastards, and abusive controlling rapist bastards at that, and we never really find out much about Beth other than she is prepared to ignore the usual bounds of counsellor/counsellee propriety and possesses saintly patience and forgivingness. There's no sense that the narrator is ever going to be able to escape from the spiral of abuse and addiction and despair, and clearly the same was ultimately true of Heather Lewis herself. It's the sort of book that you're pleased to know exists out there among the Harry Potters and the One Days, but for all that it's not a place you're going to want to hang out all that often. If you do fancy checking it out here's a preview of the first three chapters, and here's Allan Gurganus's afterword to my Serpent's Tail paperback edition.

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