Sunday, October 08, 2017

Review: Susan Hawthorne's Novel, Dark Matters

Dark Matters, a novel, by Susan Hawthorne, Spinifex Press 2017, trade paperback, 192 pages. Also available as an e-book.

Susan Hawthorne’s stunning novel, Dark Matters, is both a work of art and an exploration of important social issues. The title has a number of meanings that become clear as you read the book. These include the “darkness” of Kate’s story and the dark matter of the universe.

I rarely comment on covers, but I can’t help commenting on this cover’s outstanding use of color, font, and balance of graphic elements. On the front cover, designer Deb Snibson places, on a black background, the author’s name flush right in white at the top, followed by the book title, flush left, in larger pinkish red type with the subtitle (“a novel”) below it flush right in white. Beneath this is a side-bled image by Susan Bellamy of mitochondrial (maternally inherited) DNA in black, gray, and white except for two small spots of the same pinkish red of the title inside two of the DNA circles. Flush right beneath the image is name of the press (gray on a black background). The book’s spine is a strong pink with the title in white and author’s name and press logo in black. The back cover’s top half has a black background containing a book description in white type except for the first letter, “I” in the same pinkish red as the title on front. The bottom half is set on the pinkish red background, which has a smaller picture of the DNA image along with a credit in black type. (The small type above the author's name and below the publisher's name was placed by, from which this picture is used with permission.)

The novel, which takes place in Australia (where the author lives), South America, and Europe, has 3 first-person narrators. The first one we meet is Mercedes, (nicknamed “Merci,” which I took to possibly have the double meaning of the French “thank you” and the English “mercy.”) She is Kate’s lover. The second is Desi, Kate’s niece, who is struggling to make sense of Kate’s fragmented writings found after her death. The third narrator we meet is Kate herself, as she tries to endure capture, imprisonment, rape and other torture. Kate’s is the central story. Mercedes’ and Kate’s chapters are not titled with their names. Desi’s chapters bear her name as title. Some of Kate’s fragments/chapters have the day of captivity on which they were written titling the first fragment of that day, apparently placed by Kate. Desi mentions that there aren’t fragments for every day. For example, Kate’s narrative goes from “Day 1” of captivity to “Day 2,” and then skips to “Day 5.” The fragments contain descriptions of how Kate was mistreated, poems, Kate’s memories of her past (including her relationship with Mercedes and her wondering if Mercedes is still alive), and mythology including Goddess and animal references. Among the animal mentions are those that could be seen as allusions to at least 2 of Hawthorne’s 8 poetry books, Cow and Lupa and Lamb. Among  the female divinities and mythological women mentioned are Persephone, Demeter, Hecate, Athena, Psyche, Styx, Kali, Isis, Inanna, Europa, Mary, Cassandra, Kyane, Mnemosyne and her daughters, the Muses (9 according to Kate’s writings; 10, according to Desi, who, agreeing with Plato, adds “Psappa” [aka Sappho] to the list). In addition to mythological and historical allusions, there are references to current people, places, and organizations including spiritual feminist authors; Suzanne Bellamy, creator of the front cover image of this book; Niki de Sainte Phalle (“Sainte” in this name is usually spelled “Saint” in English—the final “e” used in this book renders the spelling French feminine) and her Tarot Garden in Tuscany; and a manual for torture, for which Desi guesses “the CIA” as one of 3 organizations that might be its publisher.

The book has no “running heads,” which are present in most books at the top of every page except the first page of chapters. They usually bear the book author’s name or chapter names on the page on one side and the book’s title on the page on the other side. The lack of running heads in this book reinforces the feeling (at least for me) of free-floating space, or unspoken material, or the similarity of characters, that also comes from the lack of chapter headings for some of the material.

The novel moves in time back and forth from before to after Kate’s death. In the first chapter, Mercedes (whom Desi describes in a later chapter as having come from South America to Australia with her family in the 1970s), receives the news from a family member, José, that, “They’ve released Kate.” We don’t know, at this point, from what she has been released. When José urges Mercedes to contact Kate, she responds that “It’s too soon.” We don’t know exactly who José is until later chapters. I believe that this initial murkiness is intentional on Hawthorne’s part, establishing a need for clarity—including clarity of identity— important thematically in the novel. The second chapter, written by Desi, takes place some years after Kate’s death. She tells about trying to make sense of the fragments that her aunt Kate left.  Desi tells us that that Kate, as well as her great aunt and possibly other ancestors, were lesbians. She writes: “That’s the thing about lesbians, it’s a kind of detective story that unwinds in scraps but half of the pages are shredded and the rest are so destroyed as to be unreadable. What we have left are fragments.” Among Desi’s other revelations are that Kate “sometimes used her birth name Ekaterina when she wanted to be noticed.” In the third chapter, Kate gives more background on her family. This is followed by the first fragment written by Kate in captivity and titled “Day 1.” Later in the book (Day 13), Kate tells how both her birth name and “Kate” are related to Hekate.

Desi gives a clear description/definition of “torture” within Kate’s fragments of Day 32. Desi writes: “Torture is a distortion. The torturer is not after the truth. Not even after information. The torturer wants to break the person….When it comes to women, the torturer wants to inflict shame on her. To do this he will reduce her to sex, by which he means her genitals. When they torture a man, the most effective method of shame is to reduce him to the female  sex….”And several paragraphs later: “Torture is like rape. If you don’t resist, where is there stature as a torturer?”

Yes, this novel is both art and an exploration of important social issues. Most readers will consider the book literary fiction. It also has elements of the mystery genre. And for some readers, it will be a novel of the “horror” genre. Though Hawthorne avoids overtly graphic descriptions, if you are concerned about “triggers,” tread carefully. Expertly structured and beautifully written, Dark Matters is about dreadful, challenging subjects. And though its story is about terror, it is also a story about family, women’s heroism, and love.

In addition to her 8 poetry books, Susan Hawthorne  is author of 2 previous novels, 3 books of non-fiction, and an editor of 10 anthologies. Her work has been translated into 6 languages. Among the awards she has received are the 2017 Penguin Random House Best Achievement in Writing (part of the Inspire Awards) for increasing awareness about epilepsy and the politics of disability, the 2015 George Robertson Award for services to the publishing industry, and the 1996 Hall of Fame Award (part of The Rainbow Awards) for her contribution to the gay and lesbian community.


At Wednesday, October 11, 2017 3:07:00 AM, Anonymous Patience Grace said...

wonderful review of a true force in women's literature. I have been privileged to have been inspired in person by Susan Hawthorne to run a women's writing festival as well as by her writing, etc. Yet another example of her ability to transcend while I grapple with half-fulfilled attempts toward a mere segment of what she covers.


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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.