By Elizabeth Lowry, riverrun, 480 pages, £16.99
By their names you shall know them. It is immediately obvious, to a reader of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, that a man called Edward Fairfax Vere will be nobly inclined and that one called Claggart is likely to be a brute. So, though the real world is doubtless full of charming people with the surname Carver, in fiction — especially in a book as artfully contrived as Elizabeth Lowry’s Melville-influenced second novel — such a tag carries inescapable associations with knives cutting into flesh.
Lowry’s Carver, the esteemed middle-aged director of a Boston mental asylum, is looking back to the year 1833, when he was the 21-year-old assistant surgeon on board a Pacific-bound ship in the US navy. There he encountered Billy Borden, a sailor with a heroic reputation and a personality of extraordinary sweetness. This paragon suddenly becomes a ravening beast, ripping open the throat of an annoying officer with his bare teeth. There is a storm brewing and the entire crew has just watched a man being flogged, but neither the weather nor the spectacle of human cruelty —shockingly vivid though Lowry’s description of it is — seems sufficient trigger for Borden’s descent into madness. The novel captures Carver’s slow and often frustrated attempt to uncover the backstory to that incident, and to resolve (or repress) his own complicated feelings for the beautiful, damaged Billy.
Carver is a nasty piece of work. As a young physician he is responsible for a patient’s suicide. He shifts the blame onto another doctor, one who is courting his sister, thereby destroying the couple’s chances of happiness. Following a long-drawn-out, insinuating show of kindness he later tempts his saintly employer into morphine addiction and then usurps the man’s position. He is as devious as that other unpleasantly named subordinate-turned-tyrant Uriah Heep, but unlike Heep, he is not a caricature. Lowry manages to hold our interest in him, and even to win him our sympathy.
Carver is hungry. This novel is all about eating, about appetite and starvation. The central plot is an old one. Eight men are cast adrift in an open boat with inadequate provisions. Five make it back to land two months later, emaciated, traumatised but alive. How did they feed themselves? The gradual uncovering of the answer provides the narrative spine of Dark Water, but most readers will have guessed it already from that brief summary. William Thackeray gave it, around the time this novel is set, in his “The Ballad of Little Billee”, set in another open boat: “To Gorging Jack says Guzzling Jimmy, ‘There’s nothing left, us must eat we’.”
Since “we” are all still alive, Thackeray’s Jack pulls out his “snickersnee” and tells the cabin boy: “Oh Billy, we’re going to kill and eat you.” But if the murder-and-cannibalism-at-sea plot was already a cliche and a joke to Thackeray, in this immensely enjoyable book Lowry makes of it the vehicle for a psychologically complex and emotionally engaging story of misdirected love, and of a variety of hungers, from the simple need for sustenance to the yearnings for companionship, for freedom and for home.
The self-absorbed Carver is surrounded by his mirror-images — he seems to see his own story repeated by others unfolding all around him, or perhaps he is simply incapable of seeing anything but himself. The sailor who is flogged in the opening sequence is one of those mirrors. Pernickety, ingratiating and weak, he is Carver’s loathed semblable. Others pass before him: Ruth Macy, Borden’s fiancee, whose desire to make the golden hero her own is a maddening rebuke to his own attempts to contain the glorious Billy; Johnny Canacka, the mixed-race cabin-boy and sexual victim, whose clinging devotion is a burden to Borden; Borden himself, whose refusal to eat after his breakdown is an echo of Carver’s own self-starvation.
But solipsistic though Carver is, he shows us worlds. Lowry is astute on domesticity and its discontents. Along with the melodrama there is a lot in Dark Water about knitting and the mopping of floors, and it is all the more compelling for it. Of all the dreadful acts of eating described, the one that is most potently charged is the sharing, not of raw human flesh, but of a nice piece of roast lamb.
Space matters. One of Carver’s worst offences against common decency is his refusal to allow his sister to make use of their dead father’s study. To be deprived of room, or to be locked into a room — each is cruel. There are two places of confinement here: one is a ship, “a wood-shaving” piloted “over an abyss”; the other is the asylum. Lowry, using Carver’s queasy, jealous, begrudging sensibility as a lens, gives us a wonderfully vivid sense of both closed societies, their tedium flaring suddenly into horror, their hierarchies and petty conventions set up as barriers against madness.
Gigantic literary forebears stalk the background of this book: not only Melville and Dickens (Ruth Macy is recognisably related to Miss Havisham), but Shakespeare too. “Don’t throw Hamlet at me,” says the asylum’s director: Lowry does so, with Lear to follow. Dark Water is historical fiction with high literary ambitions, employing a variety of narrative techniques — letters, court records, the confession of a man accidentally mesmerised by light on the sea. It asks big questions — who can claim with certainty to be sane? — and it is lent satisfying substance by Lowry’s conjuration of a past society, complete with its prejudices and its cooking, its sturdily handsome domestic architecture, its chilly domestic relationships and, above all, its particular forms of madness.
–Guardian News & Media Ltd
Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Peculiar Ground is published by 4th Estate.