Tag Archives: empathy in fiction

Reasons to love a novel: issues and empathy

When I was writing the novel that eventually was published as The Sinkings (2008), I used to become anxious whenever anyone asked me that dreaded question What’s it about? It wasn’t that I was trying to keep it a secret, nor that I was lacking in focus. But I believe it can be creatively disastrous to talk too much about a work still in development; that it can have the effect of closing off what is, and should remain for some time, an open question. My novel was ‘about’ many things, and I didn’t have a neat one-sentence answer handy. (Come to think of it, I still need more than one sentence to describe The Sinkings!)

I remember, one time, mumbling, Oh, it’s about a convict. And, another time, mentioning intersex. In the latter case, the person I was talking to responded, Oh, so it’s an issues novel.

An issues novel. I don’t think I’d heard that term before, but I immediately understood what my friend meant. I’d read novels that position a medical condition or a current controversy or a matter of social justice front and centre, with everything else—characters, relationships, place, dramatic arc—almost incidental to that, there merely as a vehicle for the big ‘about’.

The Sinkings isn’t like that. But it does—among other things—explore the black, white and many greys of an ‘issue’, and that kind of exploration is one of the things that inspire me as a writer. And I realise, too, that it’s something I find compelling as a reader.

I love the capacity of fiction to spirit us, emotionally and intellectually, into the skin of other characters, to worry for the impossible situations writers have put them in, to feel their dilemmas for ourselves, to wonder: Why did this happen? What if I were that person, in that time, that place, that situation… would I have done that? What would I do?

The experience of falling into the universe of a book, and into the skin of the other, can help us to understand, to think, to feel, and when people do that they are far less likely to fear or to denigrate. In other words, it can engender empathy.

My reading in 2013 brought me to several impressive books that did exactly that. In this post I’m highlighting two of them.

In her hugely successful debut novel, Fractured, Dawn Barker gives a compassionate portrayal of a family pulled to pieces by a young woman’s severe postpartum mental illness. The beauty of the way Fractured is structured, moving forwards and backwards from a pivotal event, is that cause and effect are kept in suspension, layering the reader’s means of understanding the how and the why. Similarly, the narrative point of view is continually shifting, so that we see what is happening through the eyes of the young mother, Anna, her husband, Tony, her parents-in-law and her mother—a strategy that tends to keep the reader’s allegiances also shifting, making judgment impossible. This extract is from Anna’s point of view.

fractured coverAs soon as Anna sat down in the waiting room, Jack began to cry. Just give me a break, she wanted to shout. Just shut up for five minutes. I can’t do this. But, of course, she didn’t shout. She stood up and pushed the pram back and forward, back and forward. The lady sitting across from her was trying to catch her eye; Anna felt obliged to meet it.

‘Aww, he’s so little! How old is he?’ The woman leaned over to see into the pram.

‘He’s four weeks,’ she said with a slight smile, then turned away.

‘He’s so beautiful.’ Now the woman’s head was right inside the pram. ‘Hello, gorgeous boy. What’s the matter with you? Are you hungry?’

‘No, he’s not,’ she said. ‘He’s just crying. That’s what babies do.’

The stranger raised her eyebrows and went back to her magazine.

‘Sorry,’ Anna mumbled. Her face burned. She didn’t want to cry, not here, in front of everyone. She sat down and took a deep breath, but she couldn’t get enough air. Her lips and fingers tingled. That woman was staring at her, but her face was blurred around the edges and white flashes exploded in front of Anna’s eyes. Was the woman laughing at her? She gripped the arms of her chair with her numb fingers and hoped she was smiling.

—Dawn Barker, Fractured (Hachette, 2013)

Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl—also a debut—is one of the most confronting novels I’ve read in a while, plunging me into what is now an alien world, but which of course was once (a long time ago!) my world: that of an adolescent girl. Fourteen-year-old Layla is an impressively drawn character—intelligent, sexually precocious, terribly vulnerable. Her story is given nuance and context by those of two adult characters—her mother, Margot, who is struggling with lonely middle age, and an unrelated Japanese man, Tadashi, who has a disturbing sexual fetish. just_a_girl is a powerful, and often uncomfortable, look at contemporary culture, with Layla at the heart of it, as subject and object, as confirmation and contradiction. Living, for the duration of the novel, in Layla’s skin made me reflect that it has possibly always been so with teenage girls, and to feel compassion for both the girl beneath the armour and the armour itself.

Here is part of the opening passage:

justagirl_web_mainEdnThe guy formerly known as youamizz told me he’d be wearing a red Strokes t-shirt. I see him from the train as it pulls in at Newcastle. He’s not bad enough to make me run away. But he’s older than I thought. Old enough to be my … maybe. He looks average but also kinda sweet when he spots me. He’s got a pretty hot bod. His smile lights me up. I can feel him framing me. Sizing me up as I swing towards him. I’m in my poxy school uniform. As I always am when mum drops me off at the station heading to granny’s. Mum doesn’t handle change. She gets suspicious. I went to put on my jeans and boots in the train toilet. But I opened the door to the puddles and stench and just thought, fuck it. At least he already knows.

He takes my hand. Kisses me on the cheek. Laughs and we’re away. He’s just as funny in real life. I relax and sit on the wharf and he buys me hot chips. We check into a hotel down on the water at Honeysuckle. The concierge asks if he requires an extra trundle bed for me.

—Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (UWA Publishing, 2013)

Fractured was one of the most reviewed novels in the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lisa Hill has just posted an excellent review of just_a_girl.

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