Tuesday 16 November 2010

'You bear what is'

A Clash Of Innocents 
by Sue Guiney

This is another review that I shall begin with a disclaimer. Sue Guiney, as well as being a writer, is Artistic Director of Curving Road, an organisation that aims to support the artist at some point in their career. The artist might be a playwright, actor, visual artist or something else but the aim is to support them in a way that allows them to truly develop and 'go on to produce art that changes societies and lives.' One example was their support of Leo Richardson, a young actor and writer. His play Sh*t-Mix was produced by Curving Road and directed by my wife at Trafalgar Studios. Since then it has been adapted into a TV pilot called Stanley Park for BBC3 and has just been bought by Fox for transfer to screens in America. I think we can call that a pretty successful piece of artistic nurturing. So, I know Sue, and when she contacted me about her new novel she was aware that I might feel a bit odd about reading and reviewing it. She was right, I had thought about it and stalled especially after the furore that erupted over on the virtual pages of The Guardian during their Not The Booker Prize competition. Accusations flew around about authors getting their blogging mates to promote their books, using social networking sites to drum up votes, and the whole enterprise ended with a slightly nasty aftertaste. But, I decided to rise above all that and approach the book as I would any other. If Sue is brave enough to send it to me then I'm sure she can take both the compliments and the criticism on the chin.

A quick word first about the new publisher Ward Wood. With a similar ethos to that of Curving Road, commitment and nurturing are an important part of their relationship with authors. As well as publishing work by established authors they aim to foster long term relationships with emerging talent, helping them work towards publication. Sue has previously published novels, plays and poetry and this new novel was inspired by a trip she made to Cambodia and the conflict that coloured her own life the most: Vietnam. To be honest, it's unlikely I would have read this book based on its blurb as I'm not naturally attracted to books set in faraway places (don't ask me why, it's an irrational aversion). The cover I'm afraid wouldn't have drawn me in either, there's a clash all its own happening there. But let's get past the outward appearance and into the meat of the book itself. Our narrator is Deborah, an indomitable 60-year-old American, matriarch at the Khmer Home for Blessed Children in Phnom Penh, an institution once run by nuns but now maintained by Deborah and irregular support from others. How does a woman brought up in the America of the 1950's and 60's, 'a make-believe land where every child had two parents, home-cooked meals and a black-and-white TV set', find herself running an orphanage in Cambodia? We will slowly discover as the book progresses, for this is a novel where the details of people's pasts are slowly revealed and their hidden motivations with them.

I was a good girl. Maybe that's why when the tornado that was America back in 1970 finally did suck me into its eye and spit me out again with such ferocity and violence, I landed on the other side of the planet feeling nothing but anger and humiliation.

That storm was America's involvement in the Vietnam War and for Deborah in particular the Kent State University shootings of 1970. Opposition to American attacks on Vietnam's neighbour Cambodia found voice on the campus of many universities. When state troopers opened fire on one such protest in Ohio, leaving four students dead and several injured it became a defining moment in their cultural history, particularly with regard to the rights of protesters and the idealogical differences between the younger hippie generation and Nixon's 'silent majority'. Directly involved with the trauma of that dramatic day Deborah has been able to bury many of her feelings about it by employing her nursing qualifications in Cambodia itself and dedicating herself to the care of those in need. But as her own adopted daughter, Samnang, nears student age and the opportunity of attending that very same university appears she cannot help but reconnect with the fear and confusion, all of which plays on her anxieties about letting her daughter grow up and leave the safety of her protective wing.

For Samnang it is about achieving her potential. Near the beginning of the novel Deborah has told us that there is no hope in Cambodia - 'It may sound horrible, but here in this tiny, useless, captivating country, the less hope you have, the better you can get on with living every day.' But the novel's plot plays out against the background of the looming tribunal which is supposed to bring the perpetrators of Pol Pot's brutal regime to justice. As it slowly comes closer and closer to becoming a reality we begin to sense the very hope that Deborah has deemed absent, and find in Samnang a symbol of a younger generation who might just be given the opportunity to draw a line under the past and be whatever they want to be.

The plot is driven by the arrival of another American, Amanda, who literally turns up on the doorstep offering her help. We of course know as little of this woman as Deborah does and she turns out to have significant reasons for hiding details of her past. Driven by the need for help Amanda manages to make herself indispensable and it is only when there is another arrival on the doorstep, this time an abandoned infant close to death, that the fragility of her seeming self-confidence begins to be exposed.

For the first time Amanda started to approach. She even reached out to touch the baby's cheek who then grabbed onto Amanda's finger. I have never seen a more complex set of emotions surge across one person's face in my life. I didn't know what Amanda was feeling but evidently she was feeling quite a lot, and my instinct told me I had to put an end to it - quick.

Echoing Faulkner, Guiney aims to show that 'We're never really free of our pasts'. Deborah is still affected by the events that sent her half way around the world, Amanda becomes totally absorbed in The Baby (the only name they ever attach to the abandoned infant), seeing in it a chance to redeem her own past, and Samnang has a long way to go before escaping the cultural shackles that convince her she is not worthy of anything more in life. But what also unifies these character's journeys is the theme of the nourishing love of a mother and the difficulty that comes when it's time to let go. As a physician, one of the orphanage's allies, explains to Amanda

'Children die for many reasons...They live for only one. Love. Without love no child can live. With it they can hold on even when their bodies are gone.'

Deborah's whole existence in Cambodia has been about providing the love and support that her charges lacked and yet of course she finds it difficult to make the final expression of that love to Samnang by setting her free. Amanda's personal trauma finally catches up with her and turns out to be the very thing that she has nurtured like a child, protecting her pain as though it made her special, something that she is shocked to discover is far from the truth in a country where almost every family has a story of brutality and violence. She has also forgotten the crucial fact of her survival and that, at the end of it all, is what unifies them. They are the survivors, they are the ones with the responsibility to make something of their lives.

So definitely a book for readers who enjoy a redemptive personal journey. I appreciated a look into another country that never felt like it was bonking me on the head with 'exotic' details or heavy research, believing entirely in this experience of Cambodia. In fact a slightly strange criticism might be that there were times when I felt more as though I was reading memoir than fiction. Perhaps this was because Deborah, as a narrator, has a tendency to make everything explicit, leaving little work for the reader in terms of making our own connections and conclusions and the dialogue too in places seemed to sacrifice character and truth in the service of plot development. But that con is also a pro, the book feels genuine and there is no doubting what Guiney wants to say.


Tom C 16 November 2010 at 09:20  

A fascinating review, with lots of background information to inform the reader! This sounds a fine book indeed, but perhaps a little too worthy?

I'm back book blogging after a month away - it all got a bit too demanding what with real life schedules to contend with - not least a computer rebuild and reinstalling the home network!

William Rycroft 16 November 2010 at 09:49  

Great to have you back blogging again Tom. I know exactly what you mean about real life getting in the way of blogging! In fact I've noticed quite a few bloggers recently having moments of overload, reconsideration and consolidation. Happy to report that they all continue with less pressure on themselves.

As for the potential 'worthiness' of this book I'm pleased to say that despite the setting and themes it never feels that way. There's a maturity about the writing which means that a focus on the personal and the general way in which the characters tend to bury their feelings about events means the pitfalls of a 'right on' examination of war, or of eastern culture by a westerner, are avoided.

Adele Ward 16 November 2010 at 12:02  

This is a fascinating review. I'm interested in your comment that it's too explicit, as my feeling was that Deborah is an unreliable narrator, so I disagreed with her about many things - including her view of Amanda and Kyle. So one of the things I loved about this book when I selected it was that I felt the author wasn't revealing all and was leaving me space to decide for myself.

Unlike Deborah I trusted Amanda and sympathised with her, and I wasn't too keen on Kyle as a person although she adores him. I was making my decisions about all of them just as I would when I meet people in real life myself, and reading between the lines of Deborah's narrative.

William Rycroft 16 November 2010 at 12:52  

Thanks for coming by and the brilliant comment Adele. I think what I meant by making things explicit is that Deborah has a tendency to explain her thoughts and feelings in great detail as part of the first-person narration, so I knew exactly how she felt about people and situations (whether or not those were accurate reflections or not). As you point out, that doesn't mean there can't be ambiguity with an unreliable narrator, like you I didn't think Kyle was all that she made him out to be (although she was also very clear about her feelings for him so I knew I shouldn't take her rosy view of him at face value), and the reader still has room to make their own mind up, but I wondered whether slightly less detailed narration might have increased that room.

Adele Ward 17 November 2010 at 11:11  

This kind of criticism is very useful to the author. If Deborah turns up in another novel - and I think we'd want to meet her again - I have a feeling her own thoughts and feelings would be more in the background as other stories would emerge.

Having said that, I don't think she completely understands herself, she's in denial about a lot of things, so I'm not sure I believed her introspection. She surprises us by how she suddenly reacts to some things - but I won't spoil the plot.

I love the Russian novelists so I'm ok with a bit of introspection! It's so interesting to hear how each reviewer has responded - all in different ways and to different characters.

This makes interesting reading to me as I start off with a manuscript arriving through the post that I sit down with alone and fall in love with. So the feedback about how others respond is fascinating.

William Rycroft 17 November 2010 at 11:57  

'The greatest lie is the one we tell ourselves'

Yes, I liked the way that many of the characters were in denial, particularly about their pasts. And I'm a big fan of the Russians too. Great to discuss this with you Adele.

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