Dark Chapter by Winnie M Li
‘”Tell Erika I’ll still be coming to the premier. I just…” I just won’t be the same person she knew when I left the office on Wednesday. I am not the same person.’
As I sit down to pen this review, a mug of coffee warming my hand, a candle wafting the Autumnal notes of apple and cinnamon spice through my living room, I am struck by the difficulty of trying to separate this novel from the events which inspired it. I had wanted to write an unbiased review of the literary work, drawing no attention to the author’s status as ‘rape victim.’ This is, however, seemingly not possible. No text exists within a vacuum, and Li’s own experiences colour each page of this beautifully written novel.
In the light, or shadow, of the recent sexual assault and harassment allegations against some of Hollywood’s key players, Winnie M Li’s debut novel could not be more well-timed. Here is a woman, bold enough to say ‘this is what happened to me; this is how it felt; this is not okay.’ Here is a woman, willing and able to concoct something incredible from her trauma, something which will reach other rape victims and survivors. Her novel cannot be praised on literary merit alone, because it is more than that – for some, it is a lifeline.
That said, there is, of course, literary merit to be found in the pages of this vastly complex and rewarding novel, which was listed as one of Stylist Magazine’s ‘Top 10 Debuts of 2017,’ also scooping the sought after Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize earlier this year. Vivian is a Taiwanese-American professional who often escapes her busy life through adventure and travel. Johnny is an Irish teenager, living a neglected life in the margins of society. Two unique characters, with vastly differing backgrounds, whose paths collide in one horrifying act of violence on a bright Spring afternoon in West Belfast.
Fifteen year old Johnny is part of an Irish travelling community, and has grown up under the influence of his largely absent brother and his brutish father. His character is explored with a level of depth that many crime novels do not attempt – from his childhood in Dublin living with his mother and sisters, to his adolescent years in Belfast, we follow Johnny’s journey and gain insight into what might trigger such a young person to commit such a violent act.
The novel explores the crime from the perspective of both victim and perpetrator, following their lives up to, during and after the attack. As readers we are given insight to both the victim’s response in the days, months and years following a potentially life-threatening assault, and to the criminal’s own state of mind – a reel of denial, defiance, remorse, pride and so on.
As I read the final pages of the book, I couldn’t help but feel Li was merging, almost intrinsically, with her character, the narrative voice working its way through trauma and recovery with her words: “What lives we lead, everyone rushing around, striving to appear successful, trying to hide the dark chapters from our past. But all those chapters gathered together could form a book, an entire library. All those other people with stories, hoping to forget the landscapes which still haunt them.” A powerful and thought-provoking novel inspired by the author’s own rape nearly a decade ago, Dark Chapter is a staple read for a chilly Winter evening.
Dark Chapter launched in paperback on November 1st 2017. Order the book from Legend Press in paperback or ebook here.