Posted by: patti | June 23, 2009


Alternate title:  Book Shuffle Knows All, Part II

The trouble with waiting to finish an essay that is hard to write is that the reasons for the difficulty change.  The urgency, the source of the pain, the impulse for picking up the subject in the first place — these elements either fade or intensify while the piece sits and sits in its file, unchanged.  And each time I open the directory the file squats in, I wince, or sigh, or maybe even open it, and scan it, and close it again, real quick.  One way or another, I avert my eyes, even if I can’t understand fully what I don’t want to look at.

By the time I do go back to the essay, I’ve shed layers or grown them, and the essence is lost.  It is a different essay, written by a different person, and I cannot find the thread.  I despair I am not a real writer, because a real writer knows the healing power of story:  Jane Rogers is one such real writer.  (And yes, yes, I do recognize:   real writers also know the power of a crippling depression.)

This loss of thread happened with my long-overdue Part II to this post (which was a continuation of this post).  What started out as a  a light discussion about the uncanny way the books on my shelves were communicating with each other turned into a deeply personal and painful exploration of my identity, and, it must be said, sanity.

Originally, I wanted to express the connections between Love and Vertigo and Island — specifically, how Jane Rogers takes nearly the same themes as Hsu-Ming Teo and uses them more effectively — and how they proved that the Book Shuffle at work on my shelves was plotting to teach me about names, identity, and storytelling.  It’s not that there aren’t enough connections between the books — there are many — it’s that so much in Island cut into me so deeply that a comparative book report was laughably, painfully, beside the point.

Island is a short, direct, complex novel about lying, mothers, murder, daughters, siblings, birds, identity, stories, collections, storms, names, anger, depression, fear, and responsibility.  Among other things.  Every time I went back to the book, determined to finish this post, I ended up reading chunks of it all over again, and twice I reread the whole thing.  (Love and Vertigo, not so much.)

On the first page, we learn almost everything we need to know about Nikki Black:  She is twenty-eight years old.  She has decided to find and kill her mother.  She has renamed herself.

Nikki was called Susan Lovage, and then she was called Lily Canning, and then she named herself:  “Nikki Black.  With teeth.  The spelling matters.”   In the seven-page first chapter, “Lies,” Nikki lists her experiences in group homes and with foster families with the cadences of a terrifying fairy tale:  the details come in clipped, matter-of-fact, biting sentences, and she scorns the very disbelief and dislike she is inspiring with her details.

As you might expect from someone who declares she’s decided to kill her mother, Nikki is unstable and not a little damaged.  Nikki suffers bouts of paranoid anxiety she calls “Fear.”  When she has Fear ( “choosing my words; as in, have a cold, have pneumonia, have a breakdown, have Fear”), she is paralyzed, incapacitated.  The passages describing this Fear are some of the best writing I’ve ever found on depression — for anyone who has ever suffered true depression, Nikki’s pattern of  “flying swooping falling sinking; flying swooping falling sinking” is exceedingly hard to read.

Nikki’s logic is startling in its simplicity.  Whenever she has minor success, whenever things are going relatively well for her, she self-destructs:  she is as afraid of soaring as she is of falling.  She needs to fly, and it is her mother’s fault that she cannot.  Mothers, she reasons, fear for us as children, and this is why she is afraid, why she has Fear, because her mother never did it for her:

If a mother does it for you, you’re free to fly.  Swing high on the swing, Mother can worry about what if you fall.  Mother knows you’re fragile, vulnerable, tiny; she knows how practically nothing you are, just a tiny smear of flesh squeezed out of her.  She knows you’re mortal — so you don’t have to.

That’s what I think.  That’s where successes come from. Mother-fear. Mothers who’ve done the proper thing and taken on all the cold sweats and shadows. Mine, the bitch, left me to do all my fearing for myself.

Once her mother has paid for abandoning her, Nikki reasons, the cycle of Fear will be broken: “And having given an eye for an eye I might resume myself like a phoenix, self-authored, recreated, I might fly, swoop, fly.  Fly and fly and fly and shed that Fear for ever.”  The depth of the Fear Nikki experiences, and her intense need to end it, is almost enough to make her logic sound.

My own struggle with anxiety and depression has no such easy answer.  My mother did fear for me, did love me — she still does, as a matter of fact.  (It helps that I am not the sociopath Nikki is.)  Perhaps I am still too much that impressionable little girl who puts herself in the shoes of every character she meets in a story, but I cannot read Nikki’s nights of Fear without shivering in recognition.  My own cycles are directly tied to my writing; when I cannot find the thread, I despair I never will, and instead of writing to untangle the snarl of doubt and uncertainty (like I am doing right now, finally finishing this), I sink deeper and deeper.

It’s unsettling, to say the least, to find even that much in common with a character like Nikki Black.

But I also identified with and learned from Nikki’s relationship with the truth.  When she is a child, she is told by social workers and foster parents that she mustn’t tell lies because she has a tendency to “lose sight of the truth.”  One Mummy scolds her with a rhyme ( “Tell-tale tit/your tongue shall split/and all the little birdies/shall have a little bit”), and she is marked forever:  “I used to imagine that: a flock of them with their sharp little beaks circling flapping swooping in, pecking at thin strips of my tongue, pulling, digging their claws into my chin and heaving like the thrush on the lawn tugging a worm out of the earth.”  Nikki’s references to flying when she talks about Fear are not accidental; she  is deeply superstitious about birds.

The novel is woven with the fairy tales Nikki hears as a child; when she meets her brother Calum on his sheltered island, the first thing they do is share stories.  Nikki wants to believe stories are real, but it goes deeper than that:

I like tales. . . . I like it when Fir Apple and his sister turn into a pond and a duck to escape the clutches of the wicked old cook. . . . I like the princess who weaves shirts from nettles for her seven enchanted brothers to release them from the shapes of swans. . . . I like frogs that turn into princes and old women that turn into maidens and fish that can speak and grant wishes.  I like to lose sight of the truth. Truth is shit.

But Nikki also believes the truth is important and necessary.  It’s the underlying truth she wants to protect, at all times, at all costs: “The lie is a temporary measure. Until the facts come around a bit.”  Liars, because they protect the truth,  protect us from the truth.  “It’s only liars,” Nikki points out, “who have a proper respect for the truth.”  She’s referring, of course, to the hard truth of reality, the things that no one wants to hear, that people want to be happy, but “what people get is illness, dying, misery, poverty, ugliness, divorce and jobs cleaning toilets.”  She sees no difference between lies and stories:  “Stories tell lies.  That’s why they’re good. . . . the ugly duckling turns into a swan, the goodies beat the baddies! Justice prevails! Hooray for lies.”

Hooray for stories.  Hooray for Jane Rogers.  Read Island.



  1. Mightn’t the little girl shivering in recognition be a clear case of Aristotle’s notion of catharsis?–shaken at the truth of life by awe and pity?

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