Kate Grenville's Dark Places

darkplacesA LiteraryMinded review of an Australian classic.

Dark Places
Kate Grenville
Macmillan 1994 + Text Publishing 2008 (Aus, US)

Dark Places charts the life of a pitiful, self-absorbed and knowingly empty man, Albion Gidley Singer. From a young age he attempts to fill a void that exists within him – a void associated with his lack of knowledge of the feminine. He stuffs it at a young age with mother’s secret cakes; he tries to close it over with an outward construct of able manliness and power later on. He defies the void through the ownership of women in mind and body – through manipulation, put-downs, shame and despicable sexual acts. The novel is told confrontingly and effectively in first person – and I have to say – I love a challenging narrator who both repels me and draws me in. On the whole I was fascinated by the way Singer saw the world around him. Grenville is a very accessible writer, at times a little too close to lacking subtlety. I found this too when I read The Secret River, but friends encouraged me to go back to the earlier works. And Dark Places did captivate me more than River. I have a feeling I would also like Lillian’s Story, which I will get to, later on. Grenville is certainly skilled at rendering a historical world, and the relations between characters within it – including notions of propriety (within gender, class, the workplace, etc.) – in this case, Sydney, late 19th Century.

dark-places-1There is one central idea in this novel – Singer’s emptiness, his ‘shell’- or ‘husk’-like being. I see it as a kind of subversion of the female being the receptacle – the one who is hollow, to be filled-up by a man. Singer is baffled by the feminine, though he attempts to decipher and categorise women throughout his life. He is upset by women. He tries originally to model his daughter Lillian after himself as a young boy, but ends up finding her alien when she reaches puberty. Nonetheless he seeks something in her, he seeks something in all women – an affirmation of self, a filling-up, a fleshing out, a becoming. But a man so naturally shallow and selfish, a false man, can only fail. Did I empathise with him? Not much, even though we see him from his beginnings. But it didn’t inhibit my fascination, and my curiosity.

What Grenville captures is a man whose true condition is an at-times incapacitating lack of depth, which causes him to be deceptive, derisive, judgmental, angry, controlling. A way to fill the gap, to get a handle, to become less inadequate – is to belittle others, particularly women, who threaten him with their presence, their secrets, their bodies and their fullness and purpose of being.

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