It’s not unheard of, but it’s not often you come across a marriage in which both partners are published novelists. Probably even less common is finding them published by the same house. Such is the case, however, with Esi Edugyan and Steven Price, who’s also a critically acclaimed poet. I’ve already reviewed Esi’s Half-Blood Blues, which I enjoyed immensely. And now, having also read Steven’s Into that Darkness, I can say that this family is jam-packed with talent. I can’t help but wonder what their baby daughter might produce in the future.
A mere couple of weeks after Japan’s devastating earthquake in March 2011, Into That Darkness was released. Eerily appropriate, considering this novel opens just before a similar cataclysmic event: a major earthquake that causes massive upheaval in BC’s Victoria. But what’s unique about this story is how it’s told, through several perspectives and through characters’ memories, which are presented almost as though the characters had been interviewed about the event many years later, as though we’re listening to old recordings. Memories, perhaps brought on by the earthquake, also serve to provide backstories for the characters, which does not detract or distract from the main plot but rather enriches it.
Arthur Lear is an elderly man when we meet him at the beginning of the novel, moments before disaster strikes. He goes about his normal business that morning, visiting his friend the tobacconist, ordering a coffee at the nearby café to drink in the square across. He notices the time, minute details around him. And when the café owner runs into the street to return his wallet, the first tremor occurs. And then it happens.
One gets the sense that time stands still. I don’t know if this is because of the quiet leadup to the sudden event or something to do with Price’s style, which is spare, poetic, artfully repetitive. Either way, I have goosebumps remembering the event as it happened in the novel.
Price’s writing is so powerful, his images so vivid, the story was almost too difficult to read, but it was also too compelling to put down. He spares us nothing: you will be trapped deep under rubble, you will see and smell a field of dead and decaying bodies, despair at the extent of wreckage, the weariness of emergency crews and volunteers, feel fear and anger when you meet looters and rogues taking the law into their own hands. You will be shocked (yes) by how quickly humanity can transform from civilized to depraved, stagger under the weight of darkness and chaos. You will marvel at Price’s ability to make words so true it’s a though you’re watching them as images rather than reading them.
In the coffee shop, Lear encounters a small boy, the son of the owner. After the earthquake, rescue crews, thinking Lear a doctor, enlist him to help in extracting bodies from under the wreckage. We already know that the boy and his mother are trapped under the café, that the mother is dying, that there is little hope. The rescue is fraught with desperation and danger, but they manage to pull out the boy. His mother is left for dead, and Lear takes the boy, Mason, home with him, where already there is a squatter in the house.
The rest of the story is the quest to find the boy’s sister and mother, since he believes they are alive—as it turns out, his mother is indeed also rescued after Lear has left, though no one can tell them where she is. What follows is an examination of despair versus hope, corruption versus charity, darkness versus light. Forms of the word “dark” are very often used throughout the novel. In fact, there were times when the prose style reminded me rather of a sestina, a poem in which the same six words occur throughout but at different points in the stanzas. And a bonus: poets focus on finding the best words possible to use because their space is limited but also for the sake of sound, rhythm, and aesthetics; thus, in this novel, the prose is sharp, flows exceedingly well, and I read several words I did not know.
Most of all Into that Darkness is a compassionate and piercing study of humanity’s instinct for survival and the desperate need to believe in good, redemption, freedom from the past, forgiveness, love, and the fact that it is possible to overcome what seems the very worst: disaster beyond reason and control.
It’s impossible, I think, to not think of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road when reading Into that Darkness. The styles are different but similar in their simplicity and insistence on employing only what is necessary. That’s the poet in Price, the use of concrete imagery and short, unadorned sentences, combined with rhythmic repetition.
He felt it in the small of his back, a sort of shiver. As if the cold teeth of a zipper were swiftly undone down his spine.
His fingers began to ache.
It came on.
It came on and pulsed shuddering up through the woman’s feet and knees and up through her hips and ribs and the woman where she stood leaned pitching in it like a figure in a storm. The café countertop rippling in her grip like so much ribbon in a wind.
There were times I felt the language too deliberate, too controlled, but for the most part, the style worked very well with the story. There is also a story within that’s told almost in a biblical style, an exploration of darkness and light again, the inevitable quest for God in such devastating disaster and depravity, and this too felt somewhat forced to me. Nevertheless, it fits because it serves to at least imaginatively bring forth the unavoidable question, which is always asked—Where is God in all this?—even by unbelievers at such times.
And while I say this book reminded me of McCarthy’s The Road, which I loved but at times felt I was not going to finish because I couldn’t see any hope, the darkness in this book is blended with slightly more obvious light, as is reflected by life in general, if only we learn to see both coexisting side by side.
Something in his voice arrested her and she leaned across and took his big cold hand in hers. Somewhere far off the faint clashing of cathedral bells could be heard. He rubbed at his face as if only just waking. A wind blew scurls of dust through the deepening intersection and a dark cat passed without sound in the street. The old man sat and she sat with him and they waited like that as if guests in a house not of their choosing. Which in a way they were. As are all the living in this world.
As you can probably guess, there is much more in this novel than the earthquake and its aftermath. Both are prominent but also serve as a backdrop for character studies, particularly of Lear. Price delves deeply into human nature, what it means to love and lose, remember and forget, forgive and understand, find purpose in a world where one feels adrift or foreign.
What Into that Darkness ultimately succeeds at is not only a terrifyingly real account of the aftermath of catastrophe, the reconciliation or rather balance between darkness and light, but also a needlesharp insight into the forgery of life as each of us knows it. In this sense, it’s not unlike Price’s spouse’s novel, Half-Blood Blues. Both novels masterfully demonstrate a deep understanding of human struggle and also a wondrous skill in compellingly and powerfully portraying it.
Thank you to Heather at Thomas Allen for generously sending me this book for review. Into that Darkness, by Steven Price, Thomas Allen, March 2011, 240 pp., paper.