Imagine reading a book by a white, male writer that honestly and deeply examines the terror of inheriting a legacy of violence. That asks, how can I live with knowing the women I love have been raped or abused by people who look/sound/act like me? How can men respond to male violence in a way that is meaningful?
That sounds like a good book, doesn’t it?
Patrick Somerville must have thought so too when he began crafting This Bright River. Sadly, the book fails these questions (and therefore fails to satisfy as a cogent read) in the most predictable ways. Male characters confronting male violence address it with further violence. Female characters, while otherwise fully developed (you can tell Somerville is *trying* to break the mold here), responded passively to male violence with silence, self-blame or self-destruction–yet we find out little (it’s scary? it’s hopeless?) about what it means for them to live in a world surrounded by potentially violent men. While the protagonist has his own doubts about whether a protective male violent response to rape is correct or appropriate (he seems to perceive it might be part of the problem. Maybe. Sorta.), all the elements of the narrative (that male retribution again and again leads to at least partial resolution) and reactions of the female characters suggest that this is the best response possible in a bad situation. Worse, all the acts of violence, whether they be rape or murder, are treated as unavoidable. The rapists are bent to rape because they experience strange waves of madness or tension that must be relieved (we do not actually see a hatred for women or desire to dominate–what makes rape, rape); other acts of violence are driven by circumstantial necessity. In this way, the book presents male violence as inescapable, out of the hands of hapless men. It also creates a weird catharsis that may be accessible to the boyfriends of the raped, but is rarely an option for the many women (and men) who have lived through rape. The violated cannot go out and murder our perpetrators. And if we did–or if someone did it for us–would it make any difference to living with the wreckage? To the vulnerability to further violence? Not really. Unfortunately this book does not want to live in that world, but would rather fantasize its escape (even as it vaguely acknowledges that that escape may not be gratifying).
I enjoyed the book most of the way through–it’s subtly suspenseful and the characters are interesting people dealing with interesting ordinary problems–such as, how do I reinvent myself when something has gone terribly wrong? Around the two-thirds mark, however, I began to realize where we were heading. With great hope, I plunged forward only to find the tone more and more sensationalistic, until finally erupting in a (pretty unlikely feeling) chain of violence.
Advice to Somerville and other writers setting out on a similar set of questions? Consider this thought. Rape does not come from nowhere. Rape emerges out of a place–a series of assumptions, a way of being in the world, of seeing and treating women. The hypothetical book I described above–the one I would like to read–is the one that only uses sensationalistic acts of violence as a subtle completion of the tiny acts, habits and beliefs it has mapped out from the beginning. In this way, This Bright River tries but fails. Perhaps it is still too difficult to be a white man and look, honestly and deeply, at the legacy of power.