Reflections on Dark Matters: a novel by Susan Hawthorne
I am asking myself what accounts for the haunting power of Dark Matters, this latest in a long line of books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction by Susan Hawthorne. One clue may simply be the length of that trail of published work which precedes Dark Matters. No one creates a profound work of art by staying on the surface of life, but it is equally true that no can do it before they’ve taught themselves to be at home in their own language. Each sentence of Susan Hawthorne’s Dark Matters says what it says — and it also says, “my writer knew what she was doing.”
Dark Matters vibrates through time, in part because the line of writing which leads to it includes more than Hawthorne’s own: that line begins with Sappho, the tenth muse, the rockstar of the Mediterranean, of whose multitudinous lyrics only fragments have survived the attempts to eradicate them, along with the memory of her and her companions. A whole machinery of cultural destruction has been brought to bear on the poet of love, and we are left with bits and pieces that nonetheless retain their power to evoke and to move.
Like the remnants of Sappho’s lyrics, the novel Dark Matters itself is made up of fragments. Its structure echoes the story being told as well as the background story of lesbian history, a zigzag trail through landscapes and timescapes of erasure and memory. Telling the love story of Kate and Mercedes in fragmented episodes allows for intensity (both in the scenes of beauty and in the scenes of terror), alternating with relief from intensity. And the fragments are arranged in such a way that the reader, along with Kate’s niece Desi, gradually moves through a mist of unanswered questions and mysterious gaps toward a feeling for what drew Mercedes and Kate together and a comprehension of the forces that tore them from each other’s arms.
The love story that is the heart of Dark Matters begins with Mercedes teaching Kate the tango, and from there they dance their way into a shared life. Mercedes’ family has fled torture in Chile to resettle in Australia, but when things go bad politically in her new home, the torturers show up again. In a dawn raid, armed and hooded intruders kill Priya (Kate and Mercedes’ beloved dog), shoot Mercedes, and seize Kate, transporting her to a remote detention center, where she is subjected to the textbook methods of torture, which few survive.
For Kate, the lesbian and feminist, however, there is an added twist. The most sophisticated of the torturers, the one she calls Velvet Voice, is a man who has gone beyond his job description. He’s been tracking Kate as obsessively as a rejected suitor bent on revenge: he’s read her poetry and her political writings; he’s gone through her library and studied her performances. When he grinds his heel into her left hand, breaking the bones, he calls her “sinister sister.” He knows Kate, and breaking her spirit along with her body is not only his work, it’s his pleasure. He intends to turn everything she’s ever loved against her.
Kate doesn’t know where she is, why she’s there, who authorized her being there, who else is being held in the building nor what is being done to them. She doesn’t know if Mercedes has survived. She doesn’t know what to expect next. She has been systematically robbed of situational awareness, the cues to orient herself in time and space blocked by her captors. All she has is her mind and her memory. And this is where the great richness of Dark Matters comes in because, as it turns out, Kate’s mind is very full.
There are the memories of her life as a child, memories of her travels to her mother’s Greek homeland, later memories of journeys and conversations with Mercedes, and then there are the memories extending back thousands of years, to the time of the Eleusinian rituals, to a time when women had not yet been de-authorized, to a time when the old goddesses were a living presence in the life of the Mediterranean peoples. Memory is the mother of the muses, and as Kate remembers, she begins to write archaic-sounding poems in her head and one night she dreams, like her grandmother, in the old language of Classical Greece.
To tell more of Dark Matters might be to ruin it for new readers, so I’ll stop here with one last thought: there is so much wisdom woven into this book, you can spend weeks teasing out the strands and pondering them. As Desi says, “Those goddesses are not dead. I mean not dead-dead! Not really dead! They keep coming back in cycles. It all depends on who you talk to.”
Note: Susan Hawthorne’s Dark Matters: a novel was published in 2017 by Spinifex Press, an independent feminist press in Australia that has been putting out cutting-edge books, winning awards for them, and distributing them internationally since 1991.
This review of Dark Matters: a novel was first published in Return to Mago E-zine on December 27, 2017.