This review was originally published in the print version of UOW’s student magazine ‘Tertangala’ in 2013.
Some stories push you under the waves and make you fight the water to reach air. Other stories, like Christine Howe’s novel Song in the Dark, gently pull the reader along a smooth lake’s invisible current. Song in the Dark follows a drug addict’s attempt to steal money from his grandmother and his fluctuating desire to come to terms with his past and get clean. This is a story about the tension between wanting to do and be something good—a good son, a good grandson—and being controlled by something—addiction, the past—that won’t let you stop letting loved ones down.
After the novel’s protagonist Paul burns his boss/friend’s marijuana plants, and loses his only way of making money, the first wasted realisation hits:
The sea gulls have gone, and the sand is grey in the twilight. The full enormity of what he has done starts to sink in.”
What follows is an account of how family, friendship, the past, addiction, nostalgia and grief interact. It is an exploration of control—of the self, of others, of the past and of the future. But the plot does not allow for any romanticisation of these ideas. When he hears news of his father’s passing, Paul “didn’t feel anything. Nothing” (Howe 2013, p14). When he has to choose between selling his father’s guitar his grandmother gave him (and on which he learnt to play) and going without his drugs, he chooses the former. When he finally has a little cash to buy the ingredients and cook the spaghetti bolognaise he once made for his mother, he forgets to put it in the fridge and the maggots eat it. And later, after a stranger offers Paul a lift to rehab, the reader, once again, is spared no detail as Paul “sweats, shivers, showers, eats, vomits and tries desperately to sleep for the next few days” (Howe 2013, p83).
It is not until three quarters of the way through the story (and rehab) that Paul can admit aloud that he pushed his Granny over when she caught him trying to steal money from her. But despite the negative side of addiction that comes out in the plot, the work’s biggest strength is its ability to break down the binaries it explores: confronting content and soft images/language, past and present, and hope and an inability to go on. Furthermore, Howe’s choice of a protagonist that is both immoral and a different gender to herself is an ambitious goal she successfully achieves.
The melding of a hard protagonist and plot with soft story-telling and language, is where Song in the Dark excels. This is a book of binaries and liminality, as shown right from the start, in the prologue: “Sunlight streams in the windows. Hetty’s sprawled on the floor in her nightie, and over by the armchair, smashed glass glints in the sun…. The sun pouring through the window is a pounding dryness in her head and throat” (Howe 2013, p1). Writing a protagonist whose attitude and actions most readers would describe as immoral is a big risk. If the reader not only personally dislikes a book’s protagonist, but is morally disgusted by them, retaining reader engagement is always going to be tricky. But Howe is clearly aware of this and has found the perfect solution. Throughout the book, we see Paul struggling with his decisions. He acknowledges his actions (if only in his head) and daydreams about realities where his actions are different and his loved ones are treated better. Before spending money on his habit, he visualises what he could have done for his Granny if the addiction was not there. And in the end, he goes to rehab. This juxtaposition between a hard plotline and subject matter and soft images and language is what gives the book its ability to do what very few books can: create an protagonist that is, on many levels, unlikeable by readers, and yet engaging and almost empathy-inducing. Howe crafts a protagonist who, in the hands of a lesser writer, might normally arouse little else but frustrated sympathy, but instead, incites empathy and the beginnings of understanding.
The second binary the book explores is the past versus the present. The book’s movement between the two attempts to draw the reader’s feelings towards Paul from sympathy into empathy. The flashbacks of a childhood spent constantly moving with Paul’s insecure mother attempt to provide the motivations, and reason for empathy, behind Paul’s inability to get his life together. We learn how “Every time they went to a new beach, he’d scan the car park, searching for his Dad’s ute” (Howe 2013, p26). But the ability to escape the past is a skill that Paul learns slowly. He constantly moves between his desire to survive and his desire to just let go and sink into the Wollongong waters he finds refuge in. When he is given a questionnaire to fill out at the rehab, the reader is fighting along with Paul as:
The more he reads, the less he wants to do it. If he writes down all this stuff, dredges it up from the bottom of himself, it’ll overwhelm him. Engulf him like the ocean did the night he didn’t drown” (Howe 2013, 117).
Nostalgia and how this affects the present is thread throughout the book as we see Paul’s mind constantly returning to earlier times with his parents.
The third binary explored in the book is the movement between hope and hopelessness. Right from the start, when Paul burns his source of income (his boss’ marijuana plants) his actions stem from a deep desire to survive but an inability to make the best choices. When he steals a purse, opens it, and realises it belongs to an old lady, Paul contemplates using the money he stole to do her shopping. There is hope that Paul will realise the impact of his actions. Later, when he needs more money, Paul concludes “An ATM would be better than breaking into a car… you can choose who you’re taking it from, so you don’t wind up with someone’s pension money sliding over itself in your pocket” (Howe 2013, p31). And even as he is hungry from lack of food and sweating and shaking from lack of drugs, he promises himself:
When he gets his shit together he’ll paint [his grandmother’s] house. He’ll get out the ladder from behind the greenhouse, brush the thick, green paint onto the external walls, and eat roast chicken when she calls him down for lunch. He’ll do it properly this time, not like last time when he didn’t know what he was doing” (Howe 2013, p47).
Hope visits again in the form of a stranger offering Paul a lift to rehab, before hopelessness comes knocking as Paul attempts to escape. As the story swings back into the reality of what he has done to his grandmother, the hope fades further: “He can’t stop thinking about Granny after that. What if she fell, if she’s still on the floor and no one’s found her? What if she’s been lying there for weeks? HE could call her, he thinks” (Howe 2013, p115). And then, during a break from rehab to visit his grandmother for the first time since he pushed her over and attempted to steal her money, his old boss and drug dealer sees him walking along the road and offers him a lift. By this stage, the reader is holding their breath to see if Paul’s choice will be one of hope, or hopelessness.
Finally, Howe’s choice of protagonist is very ambitious. Writing the voice of a character who is not the same gender as the writer is notoriously difficult. Although it is not easy to pinpoint how and why Howe successfully pulls this feat off, she definitely does pull it off. Paul’s voice is consistent and confronting, resulting in a character and plot that is highly believable, and clearly the first of many works from a writer in the early stages of her career who is keen to reveal the unromanticised realities of life.
Song in the Dark published by Penguin Group, Australia can be purchased here.