Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Dark Chapter is an extraordinary novel – a forensic examination of a rape and its aftermath, written by someone for who has lived through it. I read it in two days, and twice had to stop myself from reading through the night.

The book opens with the narrator looking back on her old before-the-rape self, watching her as she walks up the path that will lead to her meeting her rapist, seeing her in those last few moments as if across an unbridgeable divide:

“I look across that gap now, an unexpected rift in the contour of my life, and I long to shout across that ravine to the younger me who stands on the opposite edge, oblivious to what lies ahead. She is a distant speck. She seems lost from my perspective, but in her mind she thinks she knows where she’s going . . . she does not know who follows her; she is only thinking of the path ahead.”

It is even more extraordinary that Li writes not just from the point of view of the young woman who is raped. She delves deep into the mind of the attacker – the last place one would imagine she would want to go.

The account of the rape itself is brutal and Li spares us none of the details. But some of the hardest moments to read about come later in the novel – the medical examinations, Vivian’s frantic attempts to access anti-HIV drugs before the 72 hour time limit for them to be administered expires; the ugliness of cross-examination during the trial.

“There will be violation upon violation. This much she has come to realise in the past few weeks.”

But worst of all is the sense of desolation, of the hollowing out of the self.

“The real Vivian checked out days ago and she doesn’t know when she’ll return.”

Many people turn to writing as a way of dealing with terrible events in their lives. But this is far more than a slice of therapeutic memoir. Li’s lucid prose and compassionate understanding shine a light into a dark chapter that blights many women’s lives. It both reveals the profound, life-changing impact rape has on its victims, and offers hope that they will in time, like Li herself, grow into survivors. That the old and the new self can merge back into one person.

“The person she is now. The person she still can be. The person she always was.”

Li passionately believes it is important for survivors of rape to speak out – not just to report the crime to the police, but to speak about it openly, to remove the stigma and to enable others to understand. This book is part of that quest. Reading it, I am conscious of the many times I have walked alone, on city streets, in woods, in fields – how lucky, how privileged I am that I have never stumbled over that ‘unexpected rift’.

A shocking, absorbing and ultimately uplifting read.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Mother by Yvvette Edwards, The Break by Katherena Vermette

Avoid If You Dislike: Graphic description of sexual assault and its consequences

Perfect Accompaniment: An apple and a long drink of water

Genre: Literary Fiction, Crime

You can read Catriona Troth's interview with Winnie M Li on Words with Jam here.

Available on Amazon

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