Stylised Sagas, Part 2
Daniel Davis Wood reviews Heidi James’ The Sound Mirror
This is part two of a two-part essay on new novels that apply unconventional aesthetics to the genre of the blockbuster saga. The first part discusses Guillermo Stitch’s Lake of Urine.
By comparison to Lake of Urine, Heidi James’ The Sound Mirror is a model of restraint, virtually po-faced. That’s not to suggest that it hews to stylistic or structural conventions, nor is it to demean it. On the contrary. Although it rotates through fewer divergent points-of-view, and doesn’t go so far as to intertwine contrapuntal chronologies, it, too, plays with perception and toys with timeflow in ways that are at first disorienting, then hypnotic, and consistently surprising.
The sound mirror of the title appears only halfway through, in passing, but it gives the novel a symbol with which to represent its own form. A sound mirror is a hulking slab of cement, placed upright like a monolith with a scoop taken out of it, a concave absence, which captures and focuses sounds from far away. When a young girl and her mother visit one of these things, “a huge bowl that’s standing up on its side”, the girl asks after its purpose. It was apparently among the many sound mirrors erected along the coast of Britain to detect the approach of the Luftwaffe during World War II, but the girl’s mother instead tells her that “a whole world of noises comes across the sea and is caught by [it]. Can you hear them speaking in French? In Punjabi? In Italian? … Whisper a secret [into it] and we’ll see what I can hear.” The Sound Mirror, like this sound mirror, is a structure within which a multitude of voices are trapped and entangled, often to the point where it’s difficult to tell which voice belongs to whom, to know the identities of the speakers.
On its most basic level, the novel tells the stories of three women across at least four distinct timelines, timelines that only slightly overlap and belatedly intersect. A present-day timeline focuses on Tamara, bedevilled by anxiety as she makes one final journey to the nursing home where her mother is under end-of-life care. This timeline is intercut with another that also focuses on Tamara, splintering her journey with flashbacks that depict her childhood relationship with her mother and grandparents. A third timeline follows the maturation of Claire, a girl growing up in poverty in post-War London; the fourth revolves around Ada, who joins her parents in emigrating to Britain from India following the downfall of the Raj and the Partition. None of these women ever assumes the role of narrator, although all their stories are told in a very close third-person voice that sometimes slips into stream of consciousness. But then, to further complicate matters, there is a narrator at work here — multiple narrators, in fact, who interject from time to time in the voice of a collective “we”, functioning as an enigmatic chorus of progenitors:
It’s been a long time coming, and our fault, we should say. Funny that, speaking with one voice now, agreeing with each other. But yes, our fault, and all the others, tangled up with poisons and infections and rottenness. Our mothers and mother’s mothers containing us, we, in their bellies, seeds of each in the cells and the breath. Before splitting in two, the doubling like an atomic bomb so now [Tamara] holds us all, a rabble of ancestors, pressing up from inside against her skin. And she contains the next generation, too, if she wanted. If she can bear to, bear it, bear a child. Who could blame her if not? But for now, she’s the sum of all us women, the total. She is what’s left.
So, then, as this aggregation of ancestral spirits channels the thoughts of Tamara, Claire, and Ada — each of them temporally dislocated — it also offers oblique commentary on the choices made by these women from a point at which their fates are already known, and to be lamented. As a result, its presence opens up The Sound Mirror to a whole host of questions about, in a word, destiny. To what extent does a genetic inheritance influence the behaviour of these women? If it does not directly influence them as such, to what extent does it limit their possibilities in ways that inculcate or incentivise particular ways of being? And to what extent does their awareness of their predispositions allow them to suppress certain impulses, or to consciously overcome certain tendencies, or else provide a warrant for fatalism, a permission slip for lapses of control? The narrators, aware of their collective status as transmitters of “that family sickness”, are alert to flares of distress in Tamara, Claire, and Ada, which might in fact be a distant bequest from beyond the grave:
The madness of women, trapped and raging and muzzled like beasts. No wonder they are crazy. We were crazy. Silenced and hobbled, made stupid and dumb. Our horizons snipped small. … Painful memory slips, eyes seeing an alternate reality. The shadows of something coming. The other side. Time multiplying. Floaters, small gaps in vision, as if the world is disappearing in fragments.
In light of the playful misogyny of Lake of Urine, there’s something accusatory about those two sharp sentences in the midst of a gendered monologue: “Silenced and hobbled, made stupid and dumb. Our horizons snipped small.” The implicit question is: “by whom?” But the answer is not simply “by men”. There’s much more to The Sound Mirror than that. With the exception of one brief scene, James takes care to avoid political reductionism. She doesn’t blatantly depict instances of patriarchal oppression, nor does she streamline the sufferings of her characters so that they amount only to manifestations of victimhood under patriarchal whims. Put simply, the three women of The Sound Mirror suffer the effects of various disempowering forces that are altogether more complex than something easily labelled “patriarchy”. Essential to their daily madness are congruent problems of race and class. Ada, for instance, feels marked out by a history of Anglo-Indian miscegenation, though she is pale enough to pass as white; and so, following her emigration to England, when she forcibly assimilates herself into a situation of unearned prosperity, she becomes fiercely protective of the material gains her family makes — and morally unsettled by them, too. Claire, conversely, comes of age in poverty and has only a modicum of pride in her family to compensate for the shame of her situation; and yet, when faced with the possibility of shame being brought upon one of her children, blighting the brightest spot in her life, she decides to own the consequences in a way that brings unexpected pleasure, genuine love.
As for Tamara, she is burdened by the dilemmas of both of the other women. Raised in deprivation, now with a foothold in the bourgeois world, she tries to cover up any hint of her background by mocking herself when her roots start to show, effectively internalising the societal apparatus that serves to shame the working class. There’s a gruelling sequence in which her partner, Christopher, corrects her pronunciation of the word “superlative” in front of the other guests at a dinner party. Tamara laughs at herself, intending to lighten the mood, then doubles down on her humiliation by recalling previous instances of mispronunciation; but this strategy only earns her a private reprimand from Christopher, more shame behind closed doors, and a sense of self-generated inadequacy when Christopher chastises her for not showing her real self, for being “closed down, all surface and pretence”. The misogyny is clear, of course — if less overt and therefore more sinister than in Lake of Urine, not least when Christopher accuses Tamara of being “hysterical” — but it’s infused with so many other complicating factors of Tamara’s self-understanding and self-presentation that it allows The Sound Mirror to reach for more than the low-hanging fruit of using narrative as a crude vehicle for a critique of patriarchal power.
What the novel really drives at, I think, is a consideration of the ways in which those aspects of identity that are bequeathed to us by our forebears — by genetics, by family bonds, by culture and socio-economic circumstance — do not represent a situation given to us so much as they represent a debt to be repaid by means we cannot know. Especially in the double chronology of Tamara’s narrative, there is a powerful sense that the ancestors who formed Tamara are owed something for having done so — that she is not just in receipt of gifts and curses from them, but that she is bound to them almost reciprocally, so they have conditioned both the foundations and the future of her life. At one point, the narrators find Tamara openly regarding herself as not “whole”, not singular: as a multiplicity of selves rather than as one fragmented: “She’s a recording, a medium the past speaks through. She hears our voices passing through her. Ventriloquism. Our dummy.” But then, a little later, remarking on Tamara’s depressive state, the narrators disavow control over her: “It’s not all our fault. We’ve produced others, others who are ordinary, even happy. She has happy cousins, gay, straight, married or not. It’s possible it isn’t all down to us.” Indeed it isn’t — or, at least, it’s not all down to their doing. Their presence, however, is another matter, applying a different sort of pressure on Tamara, dictating obligations and limitations she can sense but not exactly see, and it is the felt responsibility of this presence that twists her out of shape, into a self she cannot own.
That a scenario of such complexity and ambiguity has been constructed from what is basically a blockbuster saga makes James’ achievement all the more impressive. In the hands of a lesser stylist, The Sound Mirror might have been melodramatic to the point of absurdity. It’s shot through with everything you’d expect from the likes of LaPlante, et al — infidelity, revenge, duplicity, an illegitimate pregnancy, schemes for betrothal, the thwarting of prospects, the confusion of a patriarch and the conniving of a matriarch and the callous disowning of heirs — but none of it is bombastic or taken up as fodder for easy sensationalism. It’s all subdued, smouldering in the background of moments rendered cryptically, as the novel’s triplicate narratives set off on a slow burn towards cohesion.
About that slow burn: it’s expertly controlled and suspenseful, and arguably the quality that most sets apart The Sound Mirror from the madcap mayhem of Lake of Urine. Ultimately, the reader of Lake of Urine is drawn along by the suspense of storytelling: we are continually led to wonder what will happen next in the interactions between the characters, and the novel proceeds at length to tell a story that satisfies our questions. To read The Sound Mirror, however, is to be drawn along by the suspense of structural disorientation. Early on, as the narrators who never really reveal themselves jump around between Tamara’s story, Claire’s story, and Ada’s story, we can’t be sure whether we’re privy to narratives that are somehow causally intertwined or merely parallel. James withholds the connections between the three women for an excruciatingly long time. She also scrambles sequences in order to unsettle our sense of the distinctions between timelines, and even provides a few misdirections that jolt our view of the overall scenario like an unanticipated turn of a kaleidoscope. It’s difficult to read The Sound Mirror with the sense that you’re waiting for something truly gripping to happen in any of the characters’ stories. James reroutes suspense through the structure of her narrative, into intricate organisation of scenes and patterning of revelations, so that you’re enticed to read on by the hint of connections emerging in the novel’s architectural gaps.
I suppose that all this makes The Sound Mirror sound like a less ambitious novel than Lake of Urine. In truth, it may well be. Certainly it’s less manic, less sprawling, more clearly bounded and therefore more easily managed. But I’d also say that by comparatively limiting the breadth of its elements, in terms of both its subject and its stylistic variability, James is better able to plumb the depths of her material, to tease out and dwell on their conflicting values, finding in them subtleties and nuances of the sort that gain no purchase in the glitzy spectacle of Lake of Urine. From an alternate vantage point, then, James may well be a more ambitious writer than Guillermo Stitch. Take it as given that the blockbuster saga is trash, pure and simple. For all the dexterity of Stitch’s inimitable prose, it’s relatively easy to take the saga as a subject of ridicule, to overwork its mechanisms and lampoon it. Harder, though, to gather up its broken parts and repurpose them, revitalise them, to transform trash into treasure. James takes it upon herself to attempt this more difficult task, delicately handling the clunkier elements of the blockbuster saga and intermingling them with material that is often anathema to the genre. I can’t imagine that any of my old patrons at the library’s loans desk would’ve been enamoured with the result, but I was: mystified, beguiled, moved — and surprised, and grateful, to find sensitivity and vigour in material I’d long thought lifeless.