Thoughts: Dark Chapter, by Winnie M. Li

Momentarily ignoring the backlog that built up while I was visiting family over the holidays, let’s forge ahead to the first 2023 book post!

I dragged my feet a bit on starting Dark Chapter after refreshing myself on its subject matter (I am still working through the books I added to my TBR in 2017!) because it was described as “hard-hitting” and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be hard hit right then. To be fair, it does also have the word ‘dark’ in its title. Warning to anyone who isn’t in the mood for it that the book is about rape, and more specifically is a fictionalised version of the author’s own experience. Also, spoilers follow.

Dark Chapter is a book that you can’t really describe using words like “good” or “I enjoyed it” because of the nature of its subject matter (at least, this is how I feel about it) but it is well-written and well-constructed, and does a formidable job of taking the reader through the experience, especially that of the novel’s protagonist, Vivian.

Li has set out to describe the incident, its build-up and aftermath from both sides, so we get time in Vivian’s head and also in that of Johnny, the perpetrator. She does a strong job of giving both characters a full arc through the book, following both of their stories as they come together and glance apart again, but there is a sort of metaphysical imbalance in the portrayals of both characters. Bear with me here.

Vivian’s point of view is depicted really well, full of complexity and nuance, and her experience is detailed and evocative, sometimes very stark. Her experiences as a confident, driven woman who enjoys travelling, her experiences as a Chinese-American in the US and later in London, Ireland and Northern Ireland, are well-drawn. Her relationship to her Chinese heritage isn’t the main focus of her story, but it’s always there, informing her experiences past and present, from within and without.

Johnny, however, is a bit more complicated. As the (entirely fictionalised) rapist, it’s always going to be harder to make him sympathetic anyway. Added to this is the fact that he’s an Irish Traveller, a much maligned, marginalised and discriminated-against community, culturally distinct from the settled people who live around them. Li has clearly done her research, as you can see from her acknowledgements, but still there’s something missing from Johnny. Whereas Vivian’s scenes are lyrically written, full of analogies and description and references to her past experiences outside the pages, Johnny’s scenes are sort of a litany of… not stereotypes, but almost like model issues facing the Traveller community, or a certain kind of deprived upbringing in general. Domestic violence, a bad influence but charismatic older brother, disinterest in school, hostility from the institutions that govern the settled communities he finds himself in – each one is given almost a little spotlight but it’s hard to get much of a grasp on Johnny himself. What does he actually want out of life? What are the experiences that have shaped him? It doesn’t quite hang together.

For example, Johnny’s scenes are kind of defined by a terrible attitude towards women – from his contempt for his mother and sisters, to his problematic relationship with pornography, to his dodgy actions towards other female strangers, and for the most part this is all stuff he’s learned from the men around him (Sam Jordison’s review dissects this better than I can) – but their reactions when they learn what he’s done. It’s never clear to me why the difference. Where is the line for them? Johnny’s dad is a pretty unrepentant domestic abuser and his friends are petty criminals who are implied to sexually prey on tourists as a sort of hobby. Is it just hypocrisy? Is there a line somewhere that we’ve never found out about and Johnny has crossed it? We’ll never know.

One of the things that Li does well is her use of language between both viewpoints – even the spellings are changed, which, because I am an extremely boring person and also my job makes me, I care about and appreciate. I am not qualified to say whether her depiction of Irish Traveller dialect/slang is authentic, but she’s clearly got an ear for language, and both characters speak and think in very different ways, reflected in the narration. Part of me wonders if this is part of why Johnny comes across as so shallow a character sometimes though. I think it’s a common trap for authors to fall into, to assume that a less sophisticated vocabulary means less complex thoughts, that a lack of education means less nuanced feelings.

Yes, I am acutely, painfully aware that I am essentially saying “The rapist should have a richer inner life”. I feel faintly ridiculous, and indeed, insulting. But those are the book’s own terms – that we are exploring both characters through the catalysing incident of the rape – and they’re the only ones I can judge it on.

All in all this book is actually pretty compelling, even to me, relatively squeamish in my old age and not always in the mood to be hit hard by hard-hitting things. Li’s depiction of the aftermath, both as we follow Vivian through her arduous recovery and Johnny through his attempts to escape the consequences of his actions, is also compelling, which I think is a hard thing to maintain after the intensity of the rape scene itself. I feel awful even saying it, but you know what I mean.

Vivian’s ending is satisfying – a daring hike in Oman that draws parallels with her experience and even of her writing the book. Johnny’s is ambiguous – he violates his parole and vanishes. I found it genuinely hard to predict whether he would reoffend, given his experience of guilt, court and prison. Was he beginning to feel remorse or was he playacting for the sake of the authorities? But even if he was, would he not be deterred by the frankly unpleasant experience he had had of being caught and facing the consequences? It always felt like it hadn’t been worth it, even from the start. Or did his time in prison only instil in him even more anger which would seek an outlet? It’s impossible to say which side he’d fall down on, which I suppose mirrors, albeit faintly, something of the experience in real life when a criminal is released or escapes from prison.

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