BOOK REVIEW / Monstrous pillar of Victorian society: 'Dark Places' - Grenville: Picador, 14.99

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The Independent Online
WHETHER ideology and fiction are good partners remains a moot point; so to describe a great novelist as evidently a feminist might seem a slur. Does the ideal Muse write slogans? But just as, say, Michele Roberts and Angela Carter have enriched the British novel with a consciously feminist sensibility, and Christa Wolf the German novel, and all sorts of writers - from Jane Smiley to Alice Walker and Toni Morrison - the American novel, so we can see the feminist viewpoint working away in Australia, in the intriguing, strikingly rich work of Kate Grenville.

The wonderful thing about Grenville's work is that although so many of her underlying concerns - about the victimisation of women, the tragic effects of abuse, the problems produced by separating out our masculine and feminine instincts - are straightforward and almost didactic, the pull of her work is truly fictional. The novels are mythic, funny, witty; and while we are reading them the struggles are those of the characters, not those of the ideas.

In Dark Places, this thoroughly modern woman sets herself the task of imagining the psyche of a thoroughly Victorian patriarch, Albion Gidley Singer. She has already made inroads into this world: in Lilian's Story, the book that is, in effect, the sequel to this novel but was published nine years before it, Grenville created the sad, noble figure of Albion's daughter, Lilian.

Lilian was not an easy heroine. She was a monstrous, fat, angry, mad woman, given to needling people on buses: ' 'No one enjoying life can afford not to journey,' I told the people beside me in the bus. But on a bus or a tram, everyone can pretend not to hear a large woman talking nonsense.'

Luckily, Grenville seems to like monsters. She peeled away at Lilian until we understood the woman beneath, and with understanding came love. In Dark Places, she concentrates on the monster that is Lilian's father - a sadistic, overbearing, stupid pillar of society. The characterisation is again unerringly gifted, and her style as rich in glorious mimicry and hidden laughter. But understanding and love and sympathy are much further away in this book.

One thing Grenville is as clear about here as she was in Lilian's Story: monsters are made and not born. Lilian was made monstrous by the twisted Edwardian society in which she lived, and the various grades of mental and physical abuse her father meted out to her. But how was her father made? Grenville shows us a soft little boy searching around for the horny shell that he needs to protect him from a nasty world. As a child, he finds that the certainty of facts will comfort him. And he learns that bullying his little sister releases him from his own feelings of powerlessness.

Gradually he learns the poses that befit a Victorian man: the coldness towards women that they will reinterpret as strength; the head for wine that will be taken as joie de vivre; the viciousness in business that will be seen as strong leadership. The roots of his monstrousness are inextricably bound up with expectations of maleness. This is a sissyish, fat, asthmatic boy who finds that only macho, cold, muscular poses strike a spark out of those around him.

That might look like an unsatisfactorily easy explanation for a good deal of complex misery. But although Grenville does on occasion veer uncomfortably close to didacticism, her characters live and her story sings. When Albion is young, he loves cakes and his mother brings them to him late at night, 'comfort to my hollowness, filling it slyly'. It is this wonderful, elusive feeling of fullness that haunts him. He associates it with femaleness and never achieves it on his own, but must seek it in the sweetness and weakness of women. It is what unmans him and what leads him to become manly in compensation.

Touchingly, Grenville also tells the tale of Albion's early homosexuality, quickly snuffed out. At school he dreams of being enfolded in the arms of his favourite teacher, mimics his gestures and voice, and looks to him for approval. But when reality strikes and Cargill, the object of his affection, turns to him with the gentle offer of an embrace, the enormity of letting down all his defences strikes him with horror: 'What possessed me, that I flailed out then against Cargill, choking on fear, feeling my hand strike his face so he flinched?'

Grenville almost overstates the young Albion's ability to stand away from the experience, interpreting and wondering over it: 'If I let myself be undone by all this, and stand naked in the blast of love, I would risk the worst death of all.'

When we get to the matter that is the crux of the book, the appearance on the scene of his daughter Lilian, we have already come to understand the fatal pull and push of Albion's relation to his own maleness. He revels in the fact that this little girl is in many ways himself, his own echo, his mirror, with her stumpy fat legs, her anger, her ugliness, her love of facts. He is at last filled up with a satisfying kind of love.

Then Lilian betrays him, moving off into the closed girly world of puberty: 'Now she was one of theirs, sliding away into the foreign country of femaleness.' Then Albion's descent from love to abuse is achieved not in the needling whine of didactic fiction, but with the dying fall of tragic inexorability.

The only problem for careful and passionate readers of Grenville's carefully thought- through and passionately imagined work, is that she has done too much for us. On the second page of this book we hear that Albion's 'various skills and knowledges armoured him so that life could never flummox him', and we know that within that armour there was an 'ant-like being who did not know anything at all, an embattled and lonely atom whose existence seemed suspected by no one'. That is really the conclusion one wants to come to after 200-odd pages of imaginative fervour, not the premise one wants to begin with. It is as if a painter had forgotten to rub out her grid, or Lolita began with the sentence-long judgement that Humbert Humbert was a man given to exquisite desires who nevertheless destroyed an innocent life - my dear, how sad.

Still, you could not wish for a more thorough illustration of the starting premise. As Grenville shows us poor Albion turning and twisting in his monstrous guise, ugly and nasty and miserable as he is, with his reverse Midas touch that turns everything to dust, you may not be able to revel in anything that happens in the book, but you can revel in the solid, rich realisation of this dark soul.

Robert Winder is away.

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