Dark Places / Albion’s Story
Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize
Shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award
Dark Places (Albion’s Story in the US) was published in 1994. It takes up the story of Lilian from the earlier novel Lilian’s Story, but this time tells the story from her father’s point of view. It’s a very different version of events.
In Albion’s eyes, Lilian is a kind of parody of himself in female form: she shares his brain and his spirit, but she comes wrapped in the mystery of female flesh. For a man who grew up in the stifling and warping conventions of Edwardian masculinity, this is profoundly disturbing, and his disturbance finally takes a terrible form. In joining himself – literally – with the repressed female within himself, he seems to triumph, but in the end the triumph belongs to his daughter.
I WAS ONCE long ago a fat boy, and in the privacy of the bath I investigated my rolls and folds with interest. ‘It is all muscle.’ Father said. ‘Do not slouch, Albion, muscle is nothing to be ashamed of,’ and I said nothing, for if Father wished to have a son of muscle, I would do my best to please him.
I knew I was a disappointment to Father. He was a man of unbending lip, his fob-watch never far from his hand: stern reminders of how I must one day fill his shoes were never far from his lips, although he made no secret of his inability to imagine me doing so.
I was Albion Gidley Singer, son of George Augustus Singer, and had a position to maintain under so many eyes.
But who was Albion Gidley Singer?
He was a boy who learned early on how to tie his own bootlaces and not to cry when he spilled his milk. He was a boy who had learned to call his father Sir, and his mother Mama, who had learned how to conceal the various sounds and discharges of his body; he was a boy who learned to say thank you to servants in just the right way, and to say his prayers for the poor people. He was a boy who knew all this: his various skills and knowledges armoured him so that life could never flummox him.
But Albion Gidley Singer was also a large and cumbersome suit of armour wheeled around the world, made to speak and smile and shake hands, by some other, very much punier person within: some ant-like being who did not know any- thing at all, an embattled and lonely atom whose existence seemed suspected by no one.
The only comfort in the existence of that microscopic Albion Gidley Singer was the certainty of facts. In bleakness of spirit, a fact was a rock to cling to. As other boys collected stamps, my joy was in the accumulation of facts: I cherished and polished my collection, poring over The Golden Treasury of Knowledge, Incredible But True, and Every Boy’s Encyclopedia until I ran at the mouth with greed for facts.
What a wealth of facts were in the world! When I was dispirited, or confused by my sister Kristabel’s long green eyes and way of making me feel clumsy, facts were my best friends: in the uncertainties of childhood, facts alone could be depended on never to change, never to betray, and never to lose their charms.
How it comforted me to know that the average human skin measures seventeen square feet, that there are forty-nine thousand words in the English language, that a single pair of rabbits can produce three hundred and twenty-four more rabbits in the space of a year, and that a man can live for a hundred and thirty-three days without food but only forty- one without water!
Before I knew better, and reluctantly abandoned the scheme, it had been my hope to know every fact in the world by the time I died. This did not seem to me impossible: even the Encyclopaedia Britannica held a finite number of facts. I envied those who had lived before me – ancient Greeks, for example, who seemed to know almost nothing, and who could therefore easily digest the entire store of facts in existence.
But I began to see that there was one fact I would never know: the fact of myself. I watched myself in mirrors, and saw how broad of shoulder, deep of chest, imposing of height I was, how utterly solid within all my fat, or muscle: I was a well-built young fellow, and anyone looking at me would have been sure I was as solid as I looked. They could not know that for all my massiveness, I was as insubstantial as a dan- delion: and for all my appearance of strength, I could be reduced at any moment to a failed pair of bellows wheezing and squeaking.
I did a lot of watching of myself, and told my reflection its name: ‘You are Albion Gidley Singer, you were born on the twelfth of January eighteen seventy-five, you have brown eyes and a mole under your fourth rib, you live at Rosecroft, 7 Palmer Street, Bayview, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, the Southern Hemisphere, the World, the Galaxy, the Universe.’
This did not help: the reflection in the glass was unmoved, but the speck within was thrown into turmoil by the thought of all those stars, and the spaces between them that made the human brain reel to measure. There seemed no way to attach any kind of fact to that speck: the fact of its existence – the fact of myself – could be deduced only from my reflection in others.
From Mother, for example. She brought comfort to my hollowness, filling it slyly every night. ‘Here, Albion,’ that lavender-fragrant mother would say, and bring a bag of fairy-cakes from behind her back. ‘I know these are my boy’s favourites.’ I sat up in bed, watching her over my nose as it moved, set in motion by my chewing jaws. She watched every mouthful and sighed when I had used a wet finger to pick up the last grains of sugar in the bottom of the bag. ‘Sweet dreams, darling,’ she murmured, ‘the night-light will keep the ghosts away,’ and she tucked me in as I lay down, queasy from such an engorgement of cake taken too quickly late at night.
Mother was something I never seemed to get quite enough of, delicious but unsubstantial like those cakes she offered, for it was borne in on me early that a manly sort of boy does not wish to spend time with his soft mother. I read and re-read the thick pages of the Boys’ Own Annual, thos of Chums and Ripping Yarns, soaking this knowledge into my pores like a stain. I could not have pointed to the page where I learned this, but it was very clear: females did not feature in the world of boys except, now and again, as objects to be rescued.
I knew that the correct sort of behaviour for a manly young chap was winning blue-striped marbles from other lads, poking cats with sticks, and swashbuckling around with a wooden sword. Boys shouted each other down, boys jeered if you gave them a chance, boys could not wait to tell you what a dill you were, what a thick-head, how yellow, and how you couldn’t run for nuts.
Mothers, on the other hand, did not wish to engage in any kind of bold action: they were people always sitting down, with a bit of tatting in their hand or a silver teapot, and soothing phrases always on their lips: Never mind, not to worry, it is not as bad as it seems. Mothers were people who spent their time in the company of other women, and if sons wished to be near their mothers it seemed it could happen only in those private moments when the world had its back turned. But oh, there were times when I longed to be spared all that marble-winning, all the cat-poking, and all that swashbuckling, all that puffing-up of yourself like a frog, to impress the others with how big you were, how fierce, how fearless.
No one needed to tell me that Mother’s cakes were one of the things that were not to be spoken of to the other boys. No one needed to tell me – somehow it seemed I was born with the knowledge – that they would mock. Had Mother ever said, ‘Do not tell your father, Albion,’ as she handed me cakes, or had I always known this was a secret between us? Those cakes were the currency of the love between us: sweet but flimsy, a private transaction of which the evidence soon vanished.
When Father was present, Mother suppressed her sighs as well as her smiles, and only watched when Father prodded me in the chest and exclaimed, ‘No mollycoddling for you, Albion. I will not have you malingering, it is just a matter of will-power.’ So I straightened up and tried to please by being board-like in erectness and blankness of feature, and kept my eyes on the middle distance, concentrating on keeping the breaths steady in and out of my chest, and on not letting Father see that his poking of me made me want to cough.
I certainly had no wish to be a cissy, in spite of that longing to feel Mother’s arms around me now and then. Father said, ‘No cosseting, Angelica, the boy will become a milquetoaste!’ and Mother would agree, ‘I would not dream of it, George,’ but later there would be a bag of cream puffs, or bull’s-eyes, and her soft eyes watching while I ate.
Then there was my sister. Had we been a pair of brothers, Kristabel and I might have got on, for we were alike, but as it was she could not forgive me. I was the boy, so I was sent away to one of the top schools, and was given the benefit of Greek and Algebra, and I would be groomed for the business, later on.
Because she was a girl, Greek and Algebra were kept from Kristabel, and she did not have to master anything more baffling than a little polite French chit-chat, a few Kings and Queens, and a tuneful tinkling on the piano. Perverse as she was, she did not see her good fortune. ‘Why does he get to do all the interesting things?’ she would demand loudly of Mother. ‘I am better at sums than he is, any day of the week,’ and she sulked for all that Greek and Algebra, and did not believe when I told her she would not want to have anything to do with it. She envied me, and was sure she could have done better than I. ‘Say something in Greek, Albion, go on,’ she would say, and sneer when I tried.
Mother did not seem able to warm to her eldest, that skinny girl with her scrawny freckled arms and bumpy elbows, who had nearly killed her in coming into the world so reluctant and awkward. ‘Just look at the state of you,’ she exclaimed, and tweaked and tugged at Kristabel’s skirts. ‘And what in Heaven’s name have you done with your hair?’ Mother and Kristabel spent long hours with Morgan the dressmaker (Kristabel surly, standing sullen while they circled her with pins), and she made her lie in darkened rooms with slices of lemon all over her face and arms, and walk around with books balanced on her head.
But Kristabel remained all sharp angles, rough elbows, lumpy-knuckled hands: her skirt always hung awry on her angular hips: she remained unalterably plain, and so much lemon seemed to make her freckles darker than ever. All Mother’s labour and worry – hurrying home from a tea-party with a new kind of poultice that Mrs Adams swore by, to try on freckles, or a flesh-increasing diet recommended by Mrs Phipps, and all the calling to the kitchen for bowls of cucumber and oatmeal, or the yolks of four eggs in stout – poor Mother: after all this, her daughter was as bony and freckled as ever. Into the bargain she was now sulky, sullen, grizzling: ‘Let me be, Mother, it is just the way I am made, it cannot be helped.’ There was never a soft look for her poor mother, or a smile.
Although so plain, skinny, and short, she never had a day’s illness, and could run and climb and jump with nothing worse to show for it than a red face and wild hair. Just breathe, Albion, she would say. Look, like this, and would demonstrate with her own fieshless chest how to breathe.
But Kristabel, for all her inadequacies, was a female, and shared with Mother the underworld of women, from which I was forever excluded. What were those secrets they shared, Mother and Kristabel, murmuring away on the corner of the verandah, that made them fall silent when they saw me? ‘Some things are just between us girls,’ Mother might murmur, and wink at Kristabel. ‘We girls must be allowed our little secrets. Mustn’t we, Kristabel dear?’
They seemed to think they had some sort of superiority to me with their women’s vapours. For no visible reason, without being feverish, or wheezing, there were days when Kristabel would not play tennis, would not even walk, would do nothing but lie on the chaise-longue saying, I am a little indisposed, Albion, just at the minute. She would whisper to Mother, and disappear mysteriously below-stairs with some little bundle in her hand. They made me feel frumpish and stupid, with their secret knowing glances at each other – We know, but he does not. I was made tiny by their freemasonry of femaleness.
To spoil Kristabel’s poise, then, was a necessary relief. She might be as smug as a coiled cat, but I could cause her complacency to crumble, oh yes indeed! The calm and pallor of my skinny sister could always be transformed by her brother Albion, and Albion could deduce the certainty of his existence from his sister’s frenzies under his fingers.
‘Albion,’ she shrieked throughout our childhood, ‘Albion, let me go!’ She was a wanton one, with a red mouth full of teeth gasping for me, and her eyes lost in flesh when she cried out. ‘No! No, Albion, or I will tell!’ She loved nothing more than my hands tickling her, under the pinafore, into her ribs, under her arms, her belly. ‘Albion, stop, I cannot bear it!’ she shrieked, and I heard the passion in her voice that made a lie of her words, and I would not have thought of stopping until the tears ran down her red blotched face, and her voice became reedy. Sated, crazed with pleasure, she sat doubled up over her crumpled pinafore, breathing hard, hunched over on her own pleasure.
‘You love it, Kits,’ I whispered into her hot red ear. ‘You love it more than anything.’ Kristabel would shake her head -‘No, no, no’ – and I would laugh at her game of pretending to hate it, and tickle more if I had energy to spare. She, the wanton, gasping and crying out, arching and writhing under my hands: it was her pleasantry to tell me it was no pleasure.
A talk given at the Literature and Psychiatry Conference in Sydney, 1995
When I was asked to talk to you today about Dark Places I was honoured. However when I sat down to assemble a few thoughts I had misgivings. I kept hearing the raven-like tones of Patrick White: he poured scorn on the idea of writers talking about their work. He called it “All that yack about How I Write.”
Just the same, I think he might be wrong. A novel isn’t an object presented to a writer in one huge revelation. It’s just the end result of a long tortuous process. That process, rather than the end-product, is in many ways where the book is really alive. The actual book is just the point you’d reached when you couldn’t go any further.
So I’m going to talk to you about writing Dark Places. It was a book that took ten years to write and underwent a 180 degree shift in the process, and that shift is what I’m going to discuss today.
Ten years ago I wrote a book called Lilian’s Story, in which a young girl is sexually abused by her father. On and off for the next ten years I worked at a book for which the working title was “Father’s Book” – this was the story of the father who’d done the abusing in the earlier book. In many ways it’s a very violent book. I’m going to talk about what I came to see, as I worked on this book, as the logic of violence.
There is almost no physical violence in Dark Places. The violence of the book comes from the fact that the point of view is that of the rapist father, Albion Gidley Singer. This is a book in which the whole of the surface is a lie. The reader is forced to enter this lie of the surface, to collude with Albion. That can feel like a terrible violence.
So why did I write it, and why did I write it in a claustrophobic first-person narrative form? In Lilian’s Story I’d written about what happened: now I felt a deep need to come to grips with why it happened.
I didn’t do any research into incest at the start – that came later – but from general reading I had an idea that abusers probably don’t think of themselves as monsters. So I began with the premise that Albion had a story he was telling himself, which made his actions okay. The question was, what was that story?
While I was pondering this, some of us at my place of work had a fierce argument about pedophiles. We discussed the famous seductiveness of little girls and the theory that children might welcome sexual initiation by someone they knew and loved. I heard the case for pedophilia put with great eloquence. It was a plausible-sounding case. And yet to me it was simply a grotesque rationalisation, the plausible story of a mad person.
So that was where my story started: Albion is so deeply crazy he has concocted this fantasy world in which his daughter is lusting after him, in which she becomes the seducer. In his mind, he is the innocent party.
After a draft or two of this, I came up against two impenetrable problems. First, I could see how difficult it was going to be to show that I didn’t agree with Albion. How to indicate to a reader that I thought Albion was wrong, when the point of view was his? The other problem was more serious. This was all a terrible cop-out. It was no good having Albion crazy. If the book was to have any point at all, it was that Albion was entirely sane. The mystery and the horror about incest isn’t that crazy men do it, but that sane men do.
I struggled for months at this point, turned myself inside out trying to imagine what it might feel like to think your daughter was seducing you. I did a little reading about father-daughter incest. I even toyed with the idea of trying to find and talk to actual incestuous fathers, safely in prison I hoped, to try to get at it that way. But I couldn’t get anywhere near anything that rang true. It became a huge opaque thing “out there”, this mystery of Why They Did It. The more I thought about it, the less I could imagine any answers.
If I had gone to talk to sexual abusers, this book would be very different.
But I didn’t do that. Life presented me with an opportunity to write a different book, in time for the Bicentennial, and it was a great excuse to abandon Albion. After the Bicentennial book was finished, I didn’t really plan to go back to Albion. I felt I’d done my best, tried conscientiously, but failed. It was beyond my powers of understanding.
So I went about my daily business and was taken by surprise when Albion started to return to me. The first time I heard him, he was singing an aria in Rossini’s Stabat Mater. He was a counter-tenor and he was singing sad, stately, mellifluous music – dramatic, elaborate, melancholy.
Without really meaning to, without really intending anything, in a state of suspended cerebration, I started to write some sentences. I wasn’t writing Father’s Book, I was just writing a few sentences.
They were long and winding, full of colons and semi-colons, streaming on like the music. They weren’t about anything in particular. I more or less looked away, mentally, and let them wind on wherever they took me. I knew that no editor would let me have that many colons and semi colons, but it was all right because no editor was ever going to read this. This wasn’t a book, it was just sentences.
The next time I heard Albion was when I picked up the autobiography of Charles Darwin. I opened it, and this is the voice I heard: a man putting the case for and against marriage. On the “for” side: “constant companion, who will feel interest in one, object to be beloved and played with – better than a dog anyhow . . . Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa. . . these things are good for one’s health.” On the “against” side: “loss of time every day – how should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife . . . I should never know French, or see the Continent, or go to America, or go up in a balloon.”
Well, this was great stuff. I loved the way Darwin condemns himself out of his own mouth and never realises it. I loved the way you could have a person saying one kind of thing and a reader hearing quite a different sort of thing – how the same words could actually contain two contradictory texts within themselves.
I was still sure I wasn’t writing “Father’s Book”, but I had some fun writing a few more sentences, playing with how to make that double vision work – how to turn a sentence so its ironic possibilities could stand out, how to choose the words that would cue in a reader to listen for something between the lines rather than on them.
The next time I heard Albion was while I was having tennis lessons. I’m a hopeless tennis player, and Albion was there on the court watching me, sneering and scorning. What a dill she is, he was saying. What a silly bitch. What a stupid cow.
When I got home I sat down and very quickly, very fluently, wrote a scene in which Albion is watching two people play tennis, his daughter and her boyfriend. The boyfriend is playing the kind of tennis I play, and Albion’s sneering voice, describing it, is the voice I heard on the court.
So I was back with Albion, but now on a different footing. I could see now that there were triggers out in the real world that I could use in order to get into Albion’s voice. Research – thinking – was not the way to go. I played the Rossini record until I wore it out. I dipped into the Darwin autobiography until the spine broke. And I went on through life blissfully failing, seeing how I could turn all my real-life failures to use in the book, as I had hijacked the tennis failure.
The person that began to emerge was a fierce misogynist. The person I was writing, more and more fluently, and with more and more enjoyment, loathed and feared the physical fact of women, despised our weakness, ridiculed our intellects, considered that our only purpose in life was the bearing of children.
After a while, it began to dawn on me the terrible thing that was happening. Here I was, a nice girl and a good feminist, having the time of my life speaking in the voice of man who loathed what his creator actually was: a woman.
At this point I had to face a certain awful fact: if Albion was a misogynist, then I must be one too. After all, it hadn’t actually been Albion Gidley Singer out there on the tennis court. The only other person out there had been Don Rocavert, Wimbledon Champ in 1953, and that voice certainly hadn’t been Don Rocavert’s. I had to face the fact that it was a voice of my own.
This was a horrifying thing to discover, and I nearly burnt the whole thing then and there. But on pondering it, it seemed not so unnatural after all, and perhaps not a sign that I myself, personally, was a dangerous lunatic. It began to feel to me that, as a woman in a culture which in many ways is deeply misogynistic, I had split myself conveniently in two. Part of me had learned the misogynism of my culture, and found women repugnant. The other part of me had to own, although reluctantly, all those repugnant female qualities.
Two things now became apparent. First, to write about the misogynist Albion, all I had to do was to tap into the misogynist within. Now my relationship with Albion took on quite a different quality. Albion was no longer a problem to think about, something Out There that you went and did some research about, applied your intellect to. Albion was something within me, and that was the way forward: to go on allowing that voice to be heard.
Second, I began to feel that this whole thing might have as much to do with culture, learned behaviour, as with any personal neurosis. At last I could begin to glimpse a way in which Albion could behave like this and yet not be just “mad”.
I began to think about male culture, male ideas about women. I remembered a man who’d told me that until he’d had his first sexual experience, he’d believed that vaginas had teeth. In fact, he spoke as if he still wasn’t a hundred percent sure. I remembered a certain event behind a bush when I was little, I’ll show you mine if you show me yours, and the shocked look on that little boy’s face. I overheard a little boy tell another one that he always stomped on ladybirds when he saw one, because they were ladies.
All these were things I’d known for years, and just took them as another example of misogyny. Now I had a mechanism for looking at them differently, looking at them with Albion’s eyes.
I began to sense, dimly, and with a great confusion of spirit, what it might be like to see women like that . . . as a completely foreign country, another very frightening species you had no hope of understanding.
And yet it was a species you were bound up with by ties of sexual attraction, even love. Your own earliest, most loving relationship had been with a woman, your mother. You needed this species, needed it badly.
I felt my way further into this – women were foreign and frightening, but perhaps there might be things to envy in the foreign and the frightening. Again I remembered things from childhood. I’d longed to be a boy, because boys had all the fun. I hadn’t been allowed, for example, to play the drums in the kindergarten band because I was a girl. But now I could remember that there’d been another child who hadn’t been allowed to play in the dolls house because he was a boy. Missing-out might go both ways. I’d felt for many years, growing up, that it was a rotten deal to be born a woman. Now I began to glimpse how it might also seem a rotten deal to be born a man. All the things you couldn’t do, the feelings you weren’t allowed to feel, the kinds of behaviour that had to be denied in yourself.
This now began to make sense of the misogyny. The loathing of women and all they represented was perhaps a kind of desperate longing, a kind of envy. Not of wanting to be a woman, but of being allowed to express those things in yourself which only women were allowed to express. Of being allowed to cry at sad stories, to cuddle things, to be weak, be wrong. Of not having to be always the strongest, the best, the biggest, the winner.
Now I circled back to the situation of a father and a daughter. What a horrendous muddle of feeling there might be. There she was, bearing his own face, his own turns of speech, yet at the same time the loathed other, a woman, full of dimly-glimpsed horrible physical realities. I could sense that a daughter might seem like the split made manifest: for a father, a daughter might appear the physical, literal embodiment of all the put-away parts of himself.
In such a situation, it seemed entirely logical to complete the literalisation, to turn the metaphor into physical reality. Now it seemed not just logical but necessary for him to possess his other self, possess his daughter, to literally make himself one, to be made whole in her.
“Oh, epiphany of flesh! I surrendered myself to myself, and now, as never before, my skin separated me from nothing at all, I and myself were blissfully joined, and for once there was no voice judging, chiding, doubting, fearing: only this warm blank darkness like the inside of a soul, and the sounds of something labouring and panting. I heard a groan forced up from the depths of my self, and felt sweat break out on my skin like tears. I burst with the heat of bliss, and in a blaze of cells like the creation of life from mud, I gave birth to myself.” (p344.
I found the experience of writing Dark Places an extremely frightening one. I felt as if I was entering many dark places, dark places in our world where incest really happens, dark places in our culture where misogyny runs like an invisible underground stream, dark places in myself to which I had to give voice and words.
When the publisher sent me the first advance copy it sat, still in its Post Office Preferred wrapping, for over a week before I was game to open it. I was surprised when I finally did. I held it in my hand, it didn’t bite, it didn’t explode, the sky didn’t fall down on me, I didn’t turn into a pillar of salt. It wasn’t a bomb after all, it was just a book.
Kate Grenville , April 1995
Dark Places (Albion’s Story in the US)
Dark Places / Albion’s Story was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times book award for fiction, long-listed for the Booker Prize, and won the Vance Palmer Award (the Victorian Premier’s Award for Fiction)
“This is a dark tale, told with surprising humour.”
(New Yorker, Recommended Reading)
“Kate Grenville is a skilled, talented writer… lush and beautiful writing…”
(New York Times Book Review)
“This book makes for thought-provoking speculation.”
“If it is possible to make such a sexual monster intelligible to readers, Grenville has done it, and done it so well that monsters who appear daily in the media may be more easily understood.”
(Detroit Free Press)
“An absorbing story told in stately prose.”
(Select Fiction, New York Times)
“Grenville has insinuated herself into the skin of Singer and created a compelling, first-person narrative that thrills you even as it chills you. A masterful portrait of a sexual monster.”
(The Province, Vancouver)
“Nobody ever wrote better about horrible deeds … compulsively readable.”
(Sunday News, Texas)
“Grenville creates a tour de force. Her triumph lies in getting inside Albion’s thoughts sufficiently to understand him. It is a brilliantly realised fleshing-out of a man so alienated from himself that he must practise his face in front of a mirror.”
“Grenville does a magnificent job… her prose is breathtaking; in her deft hands, Albion becomes a universal character.”
(Nova Scotia Sunday News)
“A compelling narrative, rendered with compassion.”
“Great daring… the prose is gracefully poetic, rich with sensory descriptions that are powerful enough to carry the emotional weight. Grenville was extraordinarily brave to take on such a challenge… the extreme emotional reaction that Grenville gets from her readers is testament alone to her writing abilities… she provides a world so vivid that, despite discomfort, the reader continues… Grenville is truly a magician.”
(Boston Sunday Globe)
“A masterful, sharp-tongued portrait of an individual and an age. Grenville’s fiction is impossible to put down.”
“A tour de force… Grenville’s edge, unblinking prose is arresting.”
“Startling, fascinating, disturbing, this novel is recommended for most collections.”
(Library Journal, US)
“A ventriloqual tour de force of the dark ness at the heart of man.”
(Sydney Morning Herald)
“The is Grenville’s best novel yet… a very carefully considered, dense and blackly humorous novel.”
“Dark Places is a serious, provocative book.”
“Admirable and highly readable… the ambition behind it is met at almost every point by Grenville’s talent: unmistakable voice, solid intelligence, beautiful sharp language.”
(The Sunday Age)
“Captivating and extremely amusing…This is a find comic novel.”
“Grenville brilliantly, if chillingly, captures the voice of the smug, self-hating businessman who despises others as he despises himself. Dark Places is a shocking exploration of one man’s black thoughts. This is an eloquent, angry and humane novel… one of the strongest, most compelling novels of 1994. An obvious Booker contender.”
(The Irish Times)
“Dark Places is a book that rises to heights of obsessive and propulsive power…”
“It pulls one along in morbid fascination.”
(Literary Review, UK)
“Carefully thought-through and passionately imagined.”
(The Independent, UK)
“What is impressive is the force Grenville marshals to reveal character: the pellucid confession, the dialogue’s stinging wit, the eloquence of descriptive detail.”
(The Independent on Sunday, UK)
Back in 1985 I published my first novel, Lilian’s Story. It’s about a young middle-class woman born in 1900 who’s sexually abused by her father. She survives but becomes eccentric, ending her life as a street person, busking with quotations from Shakespeare and jumping into other people’s taxis. She does more than survive her father’s rape. She thrives, and ends her life saying cheerfully “I am ready for whatever comes next.”
Writing Lilian’s Story was deeply satisfying, but when I’d finished that book I realised that I’d only told half the story. To complete it, I’d have to tell the story of that abusing father. The real mystery about child sexual abuse is not the ones who survive it, but the ones who inflict it.
Dark Places is the mirror image of Lilian’s Story: the story of her abusing father, told from his point of view. Albion Gidley Singer is a respectable Edwardian gentleman who, convinced that every woman is a “lustful minx”, abuses many women. Finally he rapes his daughter, telling himself that, like every other woman, she may pretend to say no, but she really wants it.
Why venture into such dark territory? I came to realise that child sexual abuse is only the extreme end of a spectrum of behaviour that’s unfortunately familiar to all of us: workplace harassment and schoolyard bullying are on that spectrum too. Whether mild or extreme, this behaviour is about a more powerful person dominating a less powerful one.
It seemed worth trying to explore where that urge comes from.
The events and characters in Lilian’s Story had already given me a world in which this issue could be explored at its most extreme. So, although the idea of exploring child sexual abuse repelled me in some ways, I went with it. The fact that Lilian’s Story, and therefore Dark Places, were set in the past was a help – it gave some distance for me as a writer, and I thought it might have the same effect for a reader.
I did some reading about child sexual abuse, specifically incest.
The most frightening thing I learned was that it often isn’t committed by raving nut-cases or “evil” people, but by ordinary people who in every other way seem upright pillars of the community.
While I was musing on all this, a colleague at my place of work was defending the sexual “initiation” of children by an adult. He made quite a plausible-sounding case. It was a form of teaching, knowledge adults should pass on to children. To be initiated by a caring adult was a better way to experience first-time sex than with a fumbling and perhaps uncaring peer. There was a long and noble tradition of this (ancient Greeks and Romans were brought into the argument).
The man who was making this case was a good and kindly person (and as far as I knew didn’t practise what he preached), and I could see that he believed what he was saying.
I thought he was wrong, but what struck me about the discussion was his sincere conviction that there was nothing wrong with an adult having sex with a child.
This finally made sense of that research. Many child sexual offenders can’t be “reformed” or “cured” because they don’t think they’re doing wrong. We might regard them as monsters, but in their own minds they’re telling themselves a story that makes it perfectly acceptable to do what they’re doing.
Now I could see how I might approach the book – I would try to tell that story, the one Lilian’s father was telling himself as he raped her.
But how was a woman living in the 1990s going to get into the head of a man born in the 1870s?
As well as targeted research for books, I’ve come to have faith in “random” research, and in the course of general reading I came across the autobiography of Charles Darwin, of natural selection fame. This is Dr Darwin trying to make up his mind whether to get married. On the “for” side he says:
“constant companion, who will feel interest in one, object to be beloved and played with – better than a dog anyhow . . . Only picture to yourself a nice soft wife on a sofa. . . these things are good for one’s health.”
On the “against” side he lists:
“loss of time every day – how should I manage all my business if I were obliged to go every day walking with my wife . . . I should never know French, or see the Continent, or go to America, or go up in a balloon.”
(Source: The Oxford Book of Marriage)
This gave me the way in to the book. Like Darwin, Albion would take himself completely seriously and without any kind of self-awareness, and his very seriousness would make him a figure of black humour.
Darwin might be a relatively benign misogynist, but Albion is a savage one. So where does misogyny come from?
As the mother of a son, I’d watched what happens to little boys as they grow up: even in a progressive society, there’s still a lot of subtle and unconscious pressure on them to “act like a man” (as there’s a huge pressure on little girls to be sugar and spice and all things nice).
What those gender roles do is force full human beings to leave half of themselves behind. Little boys have to turn their backs on the parts of themselves that are “girlie” (anything soft, nurturing, non-competitive, compliant). The pressure is on little girls to abandon the parts of themselves that are assertive, tough, competitive etc.
Since the days of Albion Gidley Singer, there’s been a revolution in awareness of all this. Progressive mothers ( such as myself) give their boys dolls to play with and give their girls Lego. But at the coal-face, in primary school playgrounds, a “soft” boy will still be called a faggot and a “tough” girl will still be dismissed as a tomboy or a bitch.
So what happens to those cut-off parts of the full human? They don’t just disappear, they can turn septic. In Albion’s case, there’s a kind of envy of women, and a feeling of being excluded. So when he has a daughter – a mirror of himself, but in female form – it seems to him the most natural and desirable thing in the world to join himself with her – literally.
As I wrote Dark Places, I gradually realised that something rather alarming was happening: it was proving surprisingly effortless to find Albion’s misogynistic voice. This was unsettling for a woman and a feminist. Eventually – after abandoning the book several times – I came to see that misogyny is in the air we breathe, part of our culture. A constant stream of sleazy ads, news stories of attacks on women etc has the effect of normalising a certain level of misogyny – is it any wonder that even women can readily tap into it? Women are, as it were, bilingual – misogyny isn’t our native tongue, but we understand it and can even speak it because it’s all around us.
Dark Places took me ten years to write, and I gave up several times. It was just too difficult, too dark. Looking back, I’m pleased I kept going. The urge to dominate and hurt others – including child sexual abuse – is never going to go away, I don’t think. But the better we understand it – rather than just dismiss it as “evil” – the better equipped we are to deal with it.
Issues for discussion:
1. Is Albion the victim of his life circumstances ( family background, upbringing etc), or is he responsible for the way he is? Could the childhood events that made him mistrust women justify his misogyny?
2. Why are facts so important to Albion?
3. The image of emptiness or hollowness recurs in the book – but what is Albion really lacking beneath his worldly success? Do you think he ever recognises his emotional poverty?
4. Does Albion learn anything, or change in his views of women or himself, over the course of the book?
5. The book is written in the first person, which can have the effect of forcing the reader to identify with that person to some extent. Did you find you experienced any empathy for Albion?
6.Is this just a period piece, or is this story relevant to today? The women in Dark Places are unable to stand up to Albion – do women still find it hard to stand up to this kind of abuse of power?
7. Should novels deal with dark or confronting ideas? Or is it just adding to the amount of darkness in the world? Are certain kinds of subjects not appropriate to be written about as novels? Does a novel about this subject run the risk of normalising things that should stay in the realm of the taboo?
8. The author describes this book as a “black comedy”. Was this your experience of reading, or was it simply a tragedy – or did it have elements of both?
9. Do you feel that reading the book extended your understanding about some of the “dark places” in the human psyche?