Recently, I broke off from my ongoing good old independent research into women’s escapism (and if anyone reading this has read anything recent and not partisian on the topic of women’s escapism and reading romances, do let me know). Finding Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm on the shelves of someone I was visiting, I pounced on it and re-read it in a couple of days.
Now, I’m going to indulge myself and write a review of it.
It’s a funny thing; it’s much easier to write a review of a book of which you have some criticisms – but one which you regard as astoundingly well crafted leaves you almost wordless, or it does with me, anyway.
At the end, I just put the book down and used an expression I hate and despise: I said, ‘Wow!’
Of course, it does happen to be a book raising themes about which I obsess – political corruption on a global scale, lives spent in vapid preoccupation with superficial concerns and consumerism, and how the sexual abuse of women fits into these areas.
That all sounds very high falutin’. But in fact, these weighty issues are introduced
with so skilful and light a touch that you are hardly aware of their intrusion as the scene is set out, until you see the protagonist, the young Canadian‘lifestyle’ journalist Rennie Wilford suspected by the CIA of being involved in a failed coup on a little known Carribean island Here, she is served salted tea and made to defecate n a bucket while her fellow prisoner allowing herself to be sexually abused by the guards in returns for news of her lover.
I was puzzled, the first time, why the story begins with the words: – ‘This is how I got here, says Rennie. Then the account starts: It was the day after Jake left…’
Rennie returns home to find the police in the flat where she has lived alone since the break up with her lover (he’s been unable to cope with her loss of part of her breast through a cancer operation). A man has broken in, and sat drinking ovaltine while waiting with a rope. He escaped the police, who warn Rennie about bringing men back and closing the curtains when she undresses, etc.
The horror of what might have happened – Rennie thinks of it in terms of a game of Cludo, not remembering if you use the killer or the victim’s name in that: – Miss Wilford, in the bedroom, with a rope. This drives her to ask the magazine she works for a travel assignment somewhere abroad.
Rennie doesn’t want to face her pain; she’s lost part of her breast, her lover, and her confidence that she can lead a life apart from responsibility and suffering; these were the defining features of her unlucky mother’s wasted life spent in a narrow, grimly religious but uncharitable, gossipy small town in Ontario, deserted by her husband and caring for a mother suffering from early onset dementia.
She avoids deep feelings:- ‘Falling in love was a bit like running barefoot down a street covered with broken bottles’ and it is partly this which she finds so appealing in a love affair with the attractive, sophisticated successful young entrepreneur Jake, who will not tell her what’s going on in his head, but who worships her bottom. They don’t talk of love, but they fall in love anyway.
She was warned about him on the day she met him by a jaded photographer: – ‘A prick…There’s only two kinds of guys, a prick and not a prick…You’re just jealous, Rennie said. You wish you had teeth like that. He’s good at what he does.’
Jake calls Rennie his ‘golden shiska’ but once she has part of her breast removed, he becomes impotent and she can’t bear to be touched. Yet she feels a desperate longing for the unglamorous doctor who did the operation, who won’t have a physical relationship with her either, in his case through scruples about his married status.
Yet, Rennie and Jake’s sexual problems pre-date this; Jake likes to act out rape scenarios, leaping on Rennie from behind doors when she comes into the flat. Rennie goes along with these as harmless fantasies by which a sophisticated woman need not be troubled. Then, when as part of an assignment on pornography as art she has to view a collection of pornographic articles and films seized by the police, she becomes uneasy.
I wondered, as I read through this book, whether the unknown intruder was in fact Jake; Rennie never suspects him, and we are never told; but with typical Atwood understatement, the idea lurks unexpressed in the background of the story.
On the island of St Antoine (the name, of course, of one of the most militant sectors of Paris during the French Revolution) Rennie meets another reserved and ungiving man, Paul, enigmatic and with the shadiest connections and addicted to danger, with whom she starts a ‘holiday affair’.
Don’t expect too much, he tells her.
Strangely enough, Paul, who seems unlikely to give Rennie anything but the ability to enjoy her body again (which is after all, not such a little thing) gives her the ultimate gift; he dies in trying to rescue her from hostile forces in the web of insurrection and intrigue into which she has been pulled:- ‘She can hear the sound of the motor launch receding, no more significant than the drone of a summer insect. Then there’s another sound, too loud, like a television with a cop show on it heard through a hotel wall. Rennie puts her hands over her ears…’
Paul’s attempt to get Rennie to safety has failed; along with the girlfriend of the leader of the doomed and naive insurrection, she’s arrested, suspected of gun running. In the filthy conditions of the prison, she and Lora begin to talk, and this is why the novel is told in retrospective accounts by Rennie, who is talking to stave off her terror, her fear that she will never get out.
She tells Lora of the break-in by the pervert. Lora’s response shocks her: ‘I’d rather be plain old raped; as long as there’s nothing violent.’ She comes from a background of sexual abuse and places no value on giving her body to men. She disgusts Rennie by allowing the guards sex in the hope of getting news of her lover, the leader of this hopeless insurrection, that has been monitored by the CIA from the beginning.
On finding out that the guards have been lying to her, and that ‘The Prince of Peace’ is already dead, Lora attacks the guards in hysterical fury, threatening to denounce them for their own corruption. They beat her to death: – After the first minute, she’s silent, more or less, the two of them are silent as well, they don’t say anything at all. They go for the breasts and the buttocks, the stomach, the crotch, the head, jumping, my God, Morton’s got the gun out and he’s hitting her with it, he’ll break her so that she never makes another sound. Lora still twists on the floor of the corridor, surely she can’t feel it any more but she still twists, like a worm that’s been cut in half, trying to avoid the feet, they have shoes on, there’s nothing she can avoid.’
When they’ve finished, when Lora is no longer moving, they push open the grated door and heave her in. Rennie backs out of the way, into a dry corner…There’s a smell of shit, it’s on the skirt too, that’s what you do…The older one throws something over her, through the bars, from the red plastic bucket. She dirt herself, he says, possibly to Rennie, possibly to no-one. That clean her off. They both laugh.’
Hands, and their uses, play a large part of the imagery in this book. Rennie’s confused grandmother feared that she’d lost her hands somewhere. The surgeon Daniel brought her back to consciousness after her surgery by holding her own. Now, in this climax of the novel, the once detached writer of articles on fashion and furniture, almost as bemused by horror as her grandmother once was by brain deterioration, believes she can use hers to bring Lora back to life: –
‘She’s holding Lora’s left hand, between both of her own, perfectly still, nothing is moving, and yet she knows she is pulling on the hand, as hard as she can, there’s an invisible hole in the air, Lora is on the other side of it, and she has to pull her through…’
Rennie is released. A man from the Canadian embassy has negotiated her release. He asks her not to write anything about her experiences on the island or in the prison as the situation on the island, which is ‘still volatile’.
Rennie agrees; now she sits on the plane going home. A middle-aged man tries to pick her up, asking her about her holiday, commenting on her lack of a suntan. She tells him nothing, of course: –
‘She knows when she will not be believed. In any case, she is a subversive. She was not one once, but now she is. A reporter; she will pick her time; then she will report.
For the first time in her life, she can’t think of a title.’
Now Rennie knows that she both has been rescued, and never will be. She will no longer try and believe that she is exempt from life’s pain; instead she sees herself as lucky and buoyed up with this new luck.
I may have written a complete spoiler in trying to depict the brilliance of the powerful writing in this disturbing, bitterly funny, expertly crafted and terribly believable novel. However, as it was first published in 1981, it surely counts among Margaret Atwood’s collection of classics.
I deliberately didn’t read any of the literary criticism or general reviews on it while writing this post, but now I’ve glanced at some of the reviews on Amazon. They average at 3.2 stars, with more purchasers awarding a one star review than those giving a five star.
I had very little respect for Amazon’s star rating system for books before; now I don’t have any.
However, the comment of the woman to whom I gave the book as a present when I first read it, is unfortunately instructive ‘Too stark’.
Realism doesn’t generally make for a popular read. Well, back to my research on women’s escapism…