BOOK REVIEW / In carnivore mood: The Great Divorce - Valerie Martin: Doubleday pounds 15.99
Saturday 06 August 1994
Each story has a heroine. The most contained among them is Ellen, a vet at a New Orlcans zoo, who has to contend with the outbreak of a lethal virus among the animals, including a black leopard. At the same time her 20-year marriage to her husband Paul is collapsing, not tragically, but in a 'pathetic' manner, as he finds himself a new and younger mate. Camille, the leopard's keeper, is a young girl undergoing a nervous crisis, who doesn't like 'being human,' and whose alcoholic mother provides little other than mental torture.
Camille endures bluntly described sexual liaisons with a number of predatory males before starting a doomed affair with a short-order cook who lives in the old slave quarters behind a cafe. Elizabeth, the subject of Paul's academic research, known sensationally as the 'catwoman,' is executed in 1846 for biting out her husband's throat after he tries to break her spirit first by mutilating the slave who is her personal property, and then by locking up her piano.
This is drastic fare. The three stories unfold quickly to begin with, but Martin then slows all of them down so that we are forced to mark time with the lead characters as they become increasingly demeaned and agonised by their circumstances. As they fight against oppression, all three heroines identify closely with the black leopard: 'liberty could be neither taken from them nor given to them; it was their essence.' As the women's own cages become more apparent to them, they finally cease to register, through madness or otherwise, what the people who control them think, and can then take their lives into their own hands.
The book is shot through with animal vocabulary. The characters are bulls, fillies, foxes or hell cats; they paw at each other, bare teeth or claws mate, bite and destroy. Through all of this we sense the brooding presence of the author herself as she presses the argument that the breach between humans and the rest of nature is increasingly fatal.
Through the character of Ellen she writes, 'how ironic that the only animal capable of appreciating natural beauty is the one bent on destroying it, the only one capable of actually creating ugliness.' Again, emphasising the divorce, she complains that we are enticed into eating oat bran as something ultra-natural, when we are in fact clearly carnivores designed to eat meat; at the same time, her scathing one-word reason for the extinction of big cats is 'hamburger.'
Martin is in effect saying that human beings don't seem fit to be the fittest. The two scales here, one moral or sentimental, and the other wild, are in themselves symptomatic of the great divorce. As Martin exalts the strength and honour of her heroines, and reviles the savagery and abuse of their mates, she draws on both scales to create an entertaining, depressing, almost Gothic mixture.
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
- 2 President Obama leaves touching comment on Humans of New York photo from Iran
- 3 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 4 The Chinese city where men have 'three girlfriends because there are so many women'
- 5 German police forced to ask public to stop bringing donations for refugees arriving by train
Star Wars: New action dolls launched on Force Friday ahead of The Force Awakens release
First Look at Bryan Cranston transformed into LBJ for HBO’s ‘All the Way’ film
The real reason Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in The Danish Girl
Photographer captures the beauty and intensity of his girlfriend giving birth at home
Jamie’s Sugar Rush, TV review: Defeated by school dinners, Oliver takes on a new enemy
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 250,000 back our campaign
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up