Have you ever finished a novel and realised that you’ve learned something new, or understood something you’d only barely grasped before? I love the capacity of a novel to open my eyes in this way.
There is a qualitative difference, of course, between a writer who imparts information in the service of plot and one who lives inside its world and then makes their experience of that world accessible to readers. You might discover something new from both, but good novelists take you there and make you feel.
Here are three who achieve this.
Sara Foster’s Shallow Breath, a psychological thriller with an animal conservation theme, made me weep more than once. Dolphins, in one way or another, shape the life of Shallow Breath’s main character, Desi—a childhood encounter with a wild dolphin, her work with the performing dolphins at Atlantis Marine Park (long-defunct) in Perth’s northern suburbs, her witnessing of the horror of the Taji dolphin hunt in Japan. I knew nothing of the award-winning documentary film The Cove (2010), which investigates Japan’s dolphin industry (and which is referred to in Shallow Breath), so this was new territory for me.
At that point, to Kate’s surprise, another group of people had arrived. ‘The trainers,’ the same girl murmured disgustedly. ‘Hand-selecting the prettiest dolphins for a life of captivity, and turning their backs on the dying cries of the rest. This is where the real money is. This is why they do it. A dolphin to be eaten is worth six hundred dollars. A dolphin to be saved, and petted, and ogled is worth more like a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. They are sent all over the world. A dolphin in a show might well have endured this or something similar to get there. ‘Shame!’ she suddenly turns and screams towards the trainers, and Kate jumps at the rawness in her voice, a mix of pain and anger and devastation. ‘Shame on you all! Shame!’
But the group ignores her, and gets to work.
—Sara Foster, Shallow Breath (Bantam, 2012)
The Winter Vault, the stunning second novel of Canadian poet Anne Michaels, is the story of a marriage torn asunder by grief, and also the story of peoples and nations displaced from land and home. It begins with the drowning of land to dam the Nile in the 1960s—a history I was aware of only vaguely, and only in the sense of being aware of a fact, something I might have read in an encyclopaedia. The Winter Vault, as well as teaching me more about this history, gave me cause to imagine what it might feel like to see one’s birthplace literally disappear.
Before the building of the High Dam at Aswan in the 1960s, a small dam was constructed, and its height was raised twice—ten, then twenty years later, the villages of lower Nubia, the fertile islands, and the date forests were drowned. Each time, the villagers moved to higher ground to rebuild. And so began the labour migration of Nubian men to Cairo, Khartoum, London. The women, with their long, loosely woven black gargaras trailing in the sand, erasing their footprints, took over the harvesting and marketing of the crops. They pollinated the date palms, cared for their family’s property, and tended the livestock. Men returned from the city to be married, to attend funerals, to claim their share of the harvest. And some returned in 1964 to join their families when, with hundreds of thousands of tonnes of cement and steel, and millions of rivets, a lake was built in the desert. Nubia in its entirety—one hundred and twenty thousand villagers, their homes, land, and meticulously tended ancient groves, and many hundreds of archaeological sites—vanished. Even a river can drown; vanished too, under the waters of Lake Nasser, was the Nubians’ river, their Nile, which had flowed through every ritual of their daily life, had guided their philosophical thought, and had blessed the birth of every Nubian child for more than five thousand years.
—Anne Michaels, The Winter Vault (Bloomsbury, 2009)
As a writer, I have always been interested in obsession and addiction, and in the course of research I’ve read a lot about various disorders such as bulimia and cutting. However, until I read Dianne Touchell’s young-adult novel Creepy & Maud (recently shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year for older readers), I had never heard of trichotillomania.
… it’s Maud’s hair pulling that I love the most. Her fingers are thin and white and her hair quite wiry. I know I’m supposed to say something like: ‘and her hair is spun like gold ablaze in the lamplight with an incendiary burnish.’ But most days it really looks like it could do with a good brush. She winds lengths of her hair around one finger (usually an index or middle finger) and then pulls quite hard, letting the hair slide down and off the finger in a smooth ringlet. I can feel my own scalp tingling, just thinking about it. Sometimes she pulls really hard, and thick strands come away in her fingers and she flaps her hands wildly as if they are covered in cobweb. I find myself breathing through my mouth, watching her.
It’s called trichotillomania. I didn’t know that at first. It wasn’t until I noticed her pulling all her hair that I did some research. And I do mean all. At first I got really excited when she slipped a hand inside her knickers. I’ve never seen a girl do that before. But it didn’t take me long to realise there wasn’t a lot of pleasure involved, just concentration. And that same hand flapping. Well, I guess she’ll never have to wax. Once I watched her sitting in front of her mirror, tears streaming down her face, as she pulled out her eyelashes.
—Dianne Touchell, Creepy & Maud (Fremantle Press, 2012)
The novel as encyclopaedia? Of course not. And I’m certainly not making claims for fiction as superior to history. But in reading a novel, in becoming immersed in its world and the lives of its characters, we can also discover something new by default, and for me it’s another reason to love it.