Trigger warning: This book focuses on the sexual assault of a young woman and its aftermath.
I am not the same person. I am different. I am now a rape victim.
Dark Chapter tells the story of two people: Vivian, a young woman who is raped in a park just outside Belfast, and Johnny, a fifteen-year-old traveller boy and Vivian’s rapist.
Vivian is an educated woman. Her family, who own a dry-cleaners, have pushed her to go to Harvard. She wants to see the world and owns a map pinpointing the trails she wants to walk. Johnny’s memories of his childhood are of his mum and dad splitting up, his older brother Michael being caught stealing by the police and the prejudice his family faced.
The overall structure of the book is in four sections: the first covers the characters’ childhoods/youth up to and including the rape; the second looks at the aftermath of the rape; the third the trial, and the final section sees how their lives change following the verdict. Within the sections themselves, the point-of-view moves between Vivian and Johnny, juxtaposing their lives.
Both structural decisions are interesting; in choosing to cover such an extended period of time, Li’s focus is wider than the rape itself. She considers events in Johnny’s life that might have led to the sense of entitlement he has, particularly in the way misogyny and rape culture pervade our society. The police process and victim support is looked at in a way I’ve never seen in fiction before, demonstrating how arduous it is for the survivor as well as the lack of resources and funding that are available. And she shows how it is possible to build a new life, both for the survivor and the perpetrator.
It’s a brave and shocking decision to tell the story from both sides. While Johnny’s actions are horrific, by delving into his backstory, Li humanises him. While it’s impossible to like him, it is possible to understand the way culture and some of the people he associates with might have influenced his reading of the world and his place in it. Li avoids demonising traveller communities by including Johnny’s family, who have a range of reactions to his behaviour. His dad, in particular, has a very interesting response.
The other focus of the book is the way women are allowed to move through the world. When Vivian’s roommate thinks she’s ‘nuts’ for wanting to hike trails alone, Vivian sees the solitariness as key:
After all, isn’t that the whole point? Thoreau living in solitude, off in his cabin by Walden Pond. Walt Whitman waxing lyrical about leaves of grass, writing under a tree while his beard grew longer and shaggier with the passing seasons. Edward Abbey drifting down a vast canyon in the American Southwest, the rock walls rising on either side of him, just him and the canyon.
It’s notable that all the examples Vivian thinks of are men. Why can’t women move through the world in the same way? Well, the answer is in the various examples Li provides of some of Vivian’s travels, both before and after the rape. Sometimes everything’s absolutely fine, at other times it isn’t.
Dark Chapter is a compelling novel. Li tells a rounded tale of the lives of two people utterly altered by one horrific event. It’s an important and timely book.
I spoke to Winnie M. Li about her decision to write the book, being a woman in the world and winning The Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize.
Thanks to Winnie M. Li and Imogen Harris for the interview and to Legend Press for the review copy.