Saturday, November 12, 2011

It's all gone dark, Mother.

It’s rather curious that I write contemporary women’s fiction.   I have been pondering this a lot lately, since the novels that have influenced me most this year have all been much, MUCH darker.  I wonder if this is an age thing, and now that I am wading into my thirties all things get just that smidgen more serious; or maybe it is a trend in the market, that I am, by chance, following; or maybe it is that I have hit a sink-hole in my life, and by reading about characters whom I would not change shoes with, even if they were Swarovski crystal-encrusted Christian Louboutin’s, makes me feel better. 

Let’s examine the evidence:

It was in 2009/2010 that the then local indie bookstore manager, and great chum, Andrea, recommended Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale.  Weird title, thought I.  Doesn’t exactly look riveting.  But Andrea’s wise, doe-eyes lit up when she described it to me: “It’s the best book I have read all year.”  Now, I don’t get to read as much as I would like, so if I am going to commit to a 300+ page novel and invest my time in it, dang right I’m going with Andrea’s recommendation.

So I bought it.  I wish I had bought more books at Anthology.  I wish all Scrantonites had.  Then maybe the urban loft with red brick walls would still be filled with books, and the perpetual cough of the coffee machine and milk frother spluttering musically downstairs, rather than echoing with emptiness.  But I digress.

The book lay by my bedside.  Many times I crawled under the covers and managed a page before my roller blind eyelids would give up the fight.  So there it remained, within an arm's reach, to be buried alive by the incoming detritus of my life.

It wasn’t until this year, February 2011, I remembered I even had it.  I had traveled to Ind-ja with Indra, and there, at our hostess’s beautiful accommodations in Kerala, lay The Thirteenth Tale, well-thumbed with the spine almost calcified with use.  I was finishing a Jodi Picoult, Mum had insisted I read and I thought would be easy aeroplane material, so Indra sensed the latent possibilities of the book and got her mitts on it first.  She opened the cover and disappeared into its pages for days.
I popcorned through the rest of my novel, but every few pages I couldn’t resist peeking to my right to monitor the ever-more rapt-gaze of my friend beside me.  I finished my Picoult, but I didn’t start another.  I knew that I had to wait until Indra had finished so, finally, I could delve into the lauded literary fiction for myself.

And into the rabbit hole I fell, and was sucked under into the beautifully charted, appallingly hideous world of Vida Winter.   The first person narrative is not from Vida, however, but a bookshop owner’s daughter, Margaret, selected by Vida to write her biography.  The unbelievably believable tale of inbred identical twins born to the sister and brother of a country estate just begins the twisted saga that is to infect, fester, and bloom like gangrene. 

I turned the pages rapidly, eyes-filled and repelled with these unnatural visions, yet bulging hungrily for more.   Yes, I was in India.  Yes, the tea gardens, the tiger preserve, the chaotic squeeze of the city were fascinating, but all I wanted was to sit on the veranda overlooking the mountains, and think about what kind of Crazy would possibly cut through flesh and carve initials on his own living bone?  Gruesome, huh?  And I’m the type of person who can’t even watch the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs!

The trend continued with Audrey Niffenneger’s Her Fearful Symmetry.  This book didn’t seem to reach the acclaim of her previous novel, The Time Traveller’s Wife, but I was spellbound, enraptured, indivisible from each thick cream hardback page.  This is a haunting tale of identical twins (yes, twins, again.  “Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice), who, following their aunt’s untimely death, travel to Highgate, London, to receive her estate.  Robert downstairs, the deceased’s fiancé, looks after the younger versions of his much-missed Love. 

It is a beautifully-written and conceived story.  I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I never thought I was ‘into’ ghost stories.  The idea of gaggles of invisible dead people watching me as I shower, as I exercise, as I eat peanut butter from the jar in front of Facebook at 1am?  No thank you.  But this is Blithe Spirit-post-anesthetic-trippy-woo-eye-opening-conscious-altering!  Yup, that’s an adjective.

Lastly, the voice of Susie Salmon, “as in the fish,” is the one that is currently haunting me.  Okay, so I am just a tad late to the party with Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but GAH!  Holy gollywonkers!  Alice Sebold is the Queen of Dark.  Not in a self-conscious, overly grandiose way.  She does not spill the guts in a gratuitous style.  Her frank writing delivered by Susie's forever-fourteen year old voice has me gripping the steering wheel--the knuckles and valleys of my clenched fists tight and bone white, even at 30 mph.  Yes, I am listening to this one.  My ears have sucked up eight CDs in two days.  I have three left in which I hope Susie Salmon’s killer will be found and her family patched together, but knowing Sebold, she’s bound to twist the knife right in my cochlea.

This descent in darkness has me unraveling, deconstructing my writing and plotting novels I know cannot end happily ever after.  Is it age?  Is it just a trend?  No.  I think it is just the effect of great writing, and how it influences a receptive mind.  So buckle up, Dear Readers, I think it’s going to get pretty gritty.


Both Orpheus and Eurydice

She runs, but must look back.

Her limbs flounder incapable,

As she trips over the track. 


Her face strikes the railing,

But its marble doesn’t crack,

The skin itself submits

To this cold and rusty rack.

A colourless cheek hugs the iron

Impressed upon her skin,

As the desperation drains out

So does the fight to win.

In an iron grate,

She waits, numbed for

Her fatal Fate.

She hears it.

The slow, soporific chug

And rocking vibration,

A lullaby in her iron cradle.

The hooded executioner,

With rotating steely blades,

Approaches, head down, charging,

To Him she must obey.

Her eyes close, catatonic.

All is noise – pneumatic, mechanic

Movement up and down,

Pistons driving the motion,

Towards her sacrificial devolution.

Round and round,

Louder and Louder,

Closer, closer, closer….

The metal screech that curdles,

Brakes applied, but it still hurtles

Towards murder, it is certain.

Her eyes flash wide and frozen,

As she looks into its face

She gasps at the sheer waste,

Why didn’t she just race

Towards him keeping wits about?

Why did she have to look back?

But the blades lick the track,

And it’s too late to stop ‘em,

She’s nods at her fate--

It’s the countdown conundrum.

Out of time, she is sliced and swallowed whole,

And the armoured train just surges on.


  1. Oh, you're a far better reader than I am my dear Eleanor. I tried to read The Lovely Bones but I just couldn't do it. I went in years ago knowing full well its content but I couldn't manage to turn the page.

    I too have The Thirteenth Tale and it too sits idly on the stand collecting dust. Perhaps I'll try it tonight <3

  2. Oh Nina! The Lovely Bones is a grisly topic, to be sure, but the fresh-voiced Susie is so endearing and the very human responses of her father especially, are just engrossing.
    I am commuting so much, I am actually listening to The Lovely Bones on audioCD from the library. If you can't face reading the words, let the prose wash over you instead.

    The Thirteenth Tale is grotesquely-beautiful. It twists and turns more than Chubby Checker. Do give it a go. And let me know what you think!

  3. I've wanted this for you as a writer (equally for me as a reader) for some time. You are embracing your dark passenger - or is she embracing you?

    That's the beauty of it: You and she also are twins, my talented little Gemini.