Opening Dark Chapter, Winnie M Li’s debut novel, you will find out the following: it is a work of fiction, but the book is “inspired by the author’s own rape in similar circumstances”. Dedicated to “all the victims and all the survivors – and most of us, who are somewhere in between”, the narrative plays out in that “in between” space and is a harrowing account of a woman’s attempt to come to terms with her new frightening reality after being raped. The circumstances Li describes are somehow unusual, the telling perhaps even more so.
The protagonist of Dark Chapter is Vivian Tan, a twenty-nine years old, highly educated, professional American living in London on a visit to West Belfast as a George Mitchell Scholar to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the peace process. She decides to explore a hiking trail recommended by her travel guidebook. Walking on her own, she is accosted by a teenager with evil on his mind. The encounter ends in a brutal rape. It turns out that Johnny, the perpetrator, is only fifteen, illiterate, and lives in a nearby caravan park with his family of Irish Travellers.
“They say events like this change your life forever”, Li begins the novel and goes on to relate how Vivian and Johnny arrived at this point in their trajectories, what circumstances shaped them, and what happened in the aftermath of the horrid attack. Vivian immediately reports the rape to the police. At first, Johnny goes on the run, but then is turned in by his own family members (who believe his sanitised version of events), so that he can attempt to clear his name in court.
Li explains in the introduction to the novel that Johnny’s part of the story is “completely made up” and that the trial in the book did not take place as the “real-life defendant pleaded guilty”. Li imagines Johnny’s life and family and friends and writes the story alternatingly from both perspectives. Creating any character is a leap of the imagination but, as a rape survivor, putting yourself into the shoes of a rapist is an incredible act of empathy and courage. Nowhere in the novel does Li excuse Johnny’s actions, but she allows him a credible voice.
Writing Vivian could not have been any easier. Li had her own experience to draw on, but one of the greatest challenges that trauma poses for a survivor is the piecing together of a coherent narrative about what happened. Dark Chapter is a palpable portrayal of a woman’s journey to recovery as she holds the youngster accountable for the crime he committed against her by entrusting her story over and over again to the authorities: “How many more times does she need to be flayed alive in this process? Every single step of seeking justice involves exposing herself, more and more.” There seems to be on other way.
Earlier this month, Dark Chapter won the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize. It is an extremely difficult but important read.
by Winnie M Li
Legend Press, 2017
Review first published in the Cape Times, 20 October 2017.