Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson
Catherine Hall has a skilful power for building a story around people hampered by emotionally turbulent pasts in her novels. She did this with beautiful effect in her novel The Proof of Love, about a shamed academic who tries to lose and find himself in a remote location. In her new novel The Repercussions she takes this a step further, providing a double portrait of two women at opposite ends of a century. In the present, award-winning war photographer Jo arrives in Brighton from a recent journey through Afghanistan where she was working on her own self-driven photography project. She’s inherited a house from her aunt Elizabeth who recently died and here she holes up writing letters to her ex-lover and reading the diary her aunt left. While waiting for her husband to return from the Western Front, Elizabeth works as a nurse at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton during the 1914-16 time periods when it was used solely for Indian Corps soldiers who had been wounded while battling for Britain. Her plans for the future are challenged when she encounters the difficult effects war has on returning soldiers and the strife over the social conventions of the time. Each woman’s story is told in alternating chapters drawing unique parallels over matters of love, racial prejudice, gender inequality, sexuality and personal integrity.
Many novels dealing with war, whether it be WWI or the terrorist fighting in Afghanistan, have plots that involve lots of action and concern those directly participating in combat. Apart from one terrifying dramatic incident in this novel, The Repercussions takes a different approach by showing the perspectives of those who feel the reverberations of conflict and whose suffering extends outside of the focal point of battle. It proposes that wars are never conducted on neutral territory and that damage extends outward to more than those who engage in fighting. Hall observes that
War is the little kid still holding onto his mother’s hand after her head’s been cut off with a machete. It’s the father laying his dead child down to be buried by a bulldozer before disease begins to spread. It’s refugee camps, starvation, cholera.
The trauma and death wrought through conflict persists during and after the fight by extending into everyday lives which are hampered by hardship, suffering and grief.
The novel also provides a refreshing portrait of a country that has been referred to at great length in the media for the past several years. For most Westerners, the actual day-to-day landscape and culture of Afghanistan remains in shadow in contrast to the startling clear images of terror and strife and oppression shown in the media. It’s these images which come to encompass some people’s whole image of the country. Jo observes that “I know the power of photographs to move. I also know their lack of power to make any difference at all.” This engages with the simultaneous closeness and distance presented by photography or, as Susan Sontag called it, the “chronic voyeuristic relation” we have to photographs. Regardless of whether seeing photographs of international conflict moves us or makes us complacent, it paints a limited picture in our imaginations in reference to the varied landscape of foreign locations like Afghanistan. While The Repercussions doesn’t shy from portraying the unjust aspects of the country, especially in regards to the way some women are horrifically abused in domestic situations with the nations’ laws siding decidedly against the women, it also shows other aspects of the country, from beautiful family-filled parks to special locations of studious tranquillity. The Afghan characters in this novel also present very different points of view from each other and the Western characters. This gives a more dynamic reality to a location too easily dismissed as a place filled with nothing but strife.
Hall takes a particular slant in her narrative on issues to do with sexuality in a profound and moving way. It’s well known that when a person feels forced to hide their homosexuality it produces feelings of isolation and self-hatred. In stories, this is usually represented in false heterosexual relationships which internally combust or instances where the individual can eventually go through the painful coming out process. What is not often shown are circumstances where real love develops between a homosexual and heterosexual with there being a desire for a closeness which is impractical. There is a tragedy to this which Hall movingly represents in this novel. She introduces a dynamic to sexuality which shows how confused sexual feeling and romantic emotions can become.
The Repercussions cleverly intertwines the lives of two women through its narrative structure. What seem on the outside like two disparate stories from different time periods are shown to have a thematic relationship to one another. The contrast yields a complex, multi-layered perspective on the issues the novel raises. This achieves an emotional resonance by the end of the novel where the reader is left with a more textured understanding of humanity. Despite all the horror that both Elizabeth and Jo witness in the book, there are beautiful moments of great joy and humour. The novel shows that, even though people may be hampered by tremendous grief and trauma, there is a chance for happiness if you are brave enough to grab it.
Eric blogs at LonesomeReader. Having visited Brighton and been curious about the Royal Pavilion before, he’s now eager to go back and properly explore this landmark equipped with his new knowledge of its history that was brought to life by this novel.
Catherine Hall, The Repercussions (Alma Books: Richmond, 2014). 978-1846883347, 300 pp., trade paperback.