Book review: Dark Matters by Susan Hawthorne.

By Madeleine Reid.

Dark Matters is a terrifying, yet beautiful novel by the Australian writer, Susan Hawthorne, published by the feminist and contemporary Spinifex Press, in 2017. It deals with the issues of homophobia, love, family, female heroism and terror.

This unique book defies categorisation. It is a work of literary fiction, with a side of horror, crime, and mystery. It is even dystopian at times.

It is a moving, post-modern novel about the disappearance and death of Kate, a lesbian who falls victim to a hate crime. The story is set in Australia, South America and Europe, and is told through three narrators: Mercedes, Kate and Desi.

We are first introduced to Mercedes, whose apt nick-name is Merci. The double meaning of ‘thank you’ in French and ‘mercy’ in English, as Kate retreats mercifully into memories with her partner.

Kate and Mercedes were in a relationship and Desi is Kate’s niece. In a secret dawn raid, Kate is abducted by unknown government officials in Australia and put in prison. Kate narrates through her prison diaries, the torture, beatings and rape she endures. Desi tries to understand Kate’s life by reading papers and tracking down Mercedes’ history too.

The novel moves almost randomly back and forth in time from before and after Kate’s death. Hawthorn also cleverly uses Kate’s numbered journal entries as hints of chronology, which chillingly evoke the ways in which the torture is changing Kate’s character.

The title alone indicates the depth of the novel. Dark Matters. As in Dark Matter that makes up the majority of the universe. We know it is there, and we can observe its gravitational pull but haven’t been able to access it directly or figure out what it is. In the wake of formal marriage equality for gay people, the kidnap and torture of Kate is a startling articulation of the ‘evident and invisible’ anti-gay structures that lurk beneath our cultural surface [quote is from Foucault, The Order of Things1970]. Hawthorne’s confronting book makes one wonder at the horrific possibilities beyond the scope of legislated equality; let us not forget that one in three Australians opposed it in the plebiscite.

Hawthorne opts to leave the page headers blank of her name and chapter titles, allowing the reader no escape – beyond the unavoidable numbering of pages – from the captivating discomforts she provides. Her short, declarative sentences enable the reader to forget themselves and imbibe the heady, bitter story without effort.

Even the book’s cover is captivating. Far from the generic photos of random people or figures to which I have become accustomed, it is a work of art in its own right. It features a black background, with pink text, white and black lines, red and black dots.  The swirls, lines and dots are mitochondrial DNA.

Dark matters
Deb Snibson’s design uses an image by Susan Bellamy.

To me this book is an amazing and individual way of exploring intense social issues. It makes connections to what happened to the Lesbians in Nazi Germany, and also what is still happening today in countries where lesbian’s freedom is not protected like it is in Australia.

I admire how she dealt with such horror filled themes that disgusted and engaged me as a reader at the same time. She manages to add some beauty to all this dark matter.

It has definitely left me in a different place. My understanding and experiences are expanded and clearer. For this, I highly recommend reading Dark Matters.

Lastly, I would like to put a disclaimer out to readers with their own traumas or experiences, to tread carefully. This novel confronts and challenges – and bravely deals with issues which may leave some disturbed.







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