Strip by Sue Wootton (Mākaro Press, 2016), 326pp., $40
As co-editor of the website forum Corpus, poet Sue Wootton writes, ‘Poetry can be a harsh tonic or a sweet balm, but it’s always most medicinal for conditions of uncertainty, fear or rage, for those times when we feel paralysis, numbness, loss of control, dark times a-coming, or that we are falling through the cracks between everything we thought we knew.’
In her first long-form fiction outing, Wootton puts all of these things into the story of a couple who adopt a longed-for baby. Isobel and Harvey Wright (the name will become ironic) are living with a huge gulf between them because of their inability to conceive. Yet life is pretty good. Isobel gets a promotion at her museum job, while Harvey quits general practice to become a full-time cartoonist. Their lives will change forever after a social workers calls, offering them a baby to adopt.
Wootton, early on, establishes that even such wonderful news can be complex. ‘Shouldn’t they be delighted?’ Yet the idea is fraught, a shock, and a potential upheaval to the couple’s successful lives. But as Isobel works it out, there comes the realisation of sheer delight. This kind of writing recognises that the human condition can be far from simple, and imbues the writing with a dense emotional landscape – without, I have to say, being too weighty.
The reality of baby Fleur is a different challenge altogether – she screams endlessly as if possessed, and Isobel finds herself reduced to a husk of a woman: ‘chapped, chilblained, exhausted’. The baby is a monster. The social worker has warned them that the baby will be damaged, the mother possibly a drug addict, but the damage when it comes is from another source altogether.
There are elements of the fairy tale about this novel. The baby is a foundling, left on the steps of a church. Her first birthday is celebrated by the planting of a red rose. There is even a ‘toad’, of sorts. As in a classic fairy tale there is a period of calm, until a ‘bad fairy’ appears at Fleur’s eighth birthday party in the form of a phone call from Danielle, her birth mother.
This is where things start to get a little unhinged, and where Harvey, for all the best reasons, or so we are led to believe, doesn’t tell Isobel about the phone conversation. Behind Isobel’s back, he goes to meet the birth mother.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this plot thread might have gone to increasingly predictable places (stalking scenario? conflicts of shared access?), but Wootton puts her character Harvey into a position akin to making a pact with the Devil.
This is another area in which Wootton delivers surprises. The deal Harvey makes with Danielle is a pivotal point in the plot to wonder where ever the author will go next, and Wootton is not afraid to put her characters into unflattering situations. In an awful scene, Harvey uses all of his previous GP skills to bully the vulnerable young woman into conceding to his demand that she not make contact again until Fleur turns 18.
He had watched Danielle wobble with insecurity, and smiling, smiling, he gave her one more wee push.
The deal is later sealed, irrevocably so, when Harvey learns that Danielle has committed suicide. End of story? Nowhere near. Skip forward to Fleur at age 16 when she collapses. Brain surgery follows, with Fleur in hospital looking like one of Harvey’s cartoons. She seems to get better: ‘There had been a detour – a detour around a tragedy – but now they were back on track.’ But of course, these characters are not going to be let off lightly. The heartbreaking irony is that Fleur will never see 18.
Both the tragedy and the beauty of this little family lie in the couple’s deep attachment to their adopted daughter:
Not a particle of Isobel’s DNA existed in Fleur. Yet Isobel coursed in Fleur, and Fleur coursed in Isobel.
The parental heartache is captured in language that avoids the sentimental yet is nevertheless real. ‘Night long – as for every night from now on – she was alert for the slightest sound from her daughter.’
By halfway mark Fleur is very ill, and again we wonder where the story can go next. Surely this ‘terrible journey’ should mark the end of the story? Yet as the novel progresses, it becomes obvious what the novel is really about: Harvey’s singular decision to give Fleur a pain-free death, and the consequences of that decision. The enormity of Harvey’s choice is outlined in restrained language:
It would be a promise kept. His pinky promise. It would be gentle; it would be kind. It would be medicine.
Considered so bluntly, this seems heavy material. Yet Wootton brings a light touch to this fraught and complex subject. All sides are considered. Questions are inevitably raised: Should Harvey have told Isobel about Fleur’s birth mother? Shouldn’t he have shown Fleur the photographs of her mother? And ultimately, was it really Harvey’s decision alone to end Fleur’s life when he did? In such a moral morass, we must wonder about what is right and wrong, and the consequences for such a decision.
Three years later Isobel and Harvey have moved south and are trying to get on with their lives. Harvey, ‘fat with misery’, has got cartoonist’s block, and Isobel is existing with ‘Harvey’s stain on her’. Both of them must live with the terrible choice that Harvey made, as well as the loss of Fleur. Again, it is not clear where Wootton is going to go next. It is Eduardo – the dark, handsome stranger who will surely come to Isobel’s rescue – who puts the difficulty into words: ‘How can you go back to your husband?’
We see the steps leading to her possible transformation during a superbly nuanced morning-after scene in which Isobel realises ‘the absurdity of this man’, cracks music hall jokes, berates herself, feels the shame and regret of a one-night stand, then succumbs to empathy. These are the nuances of being human.
None of it goes to predictable places. Harvey, for instance, does not suffer a seemingly inevitable heart attack, dying a semi-heroic death at the kitchen table – no ‘vertiginous drop’ for him. He must carry on, in all his flabby domestic dishevelment, and continue living with the decision he made; surely there is a moral consequence in that alone.
Similarly, the ending offers no easy or pat solutions: the strange girl next door will not replace Fleur for Harvey – although she comes tantalisingly close when he sees a vision of her in the form of his daughter – and Isobel will not run off to Spain with the dark, handsome stranger. What will be resolved, however, is how to move forward in their lives without Fleur. A going-on, of sorts. A new way of being Harvey and Isobel.
This is a story that in many ways hinges on one single, awful decision. More broadly, it is about real people who are forced to face tragic circumstances, and who make very human mistakes. Yet it isn’t heavy reading because it digs deep and it makes sense. Character motivation – why people do the things they do – is treated with respect in this novel, and if the characters’ reasons may not always make perfect sense to us, they are still understandable through the lens of their flawed and misguided thinking.
It’s a novel about marriage, and living well, about making mistakes, and paying the price for such mistakes – it’s fiction that opens a window onto other people’s lives and stories.
With four poetry collections and a children’s book under her belt, Wootton proves herself to be also a confident practitioner of the novel form. On a superficial level, my only beef is with the title and the cover, both of which do a disservice to this elegant novel. Sure, on one level the story could be seen as being about stripping things back to basics, but it is not about a man and his cartoon strip, as highlighted by both the cover design and the title. It’s about so much more than that.
Strip explores devastating material, but this is also a smart, sexy, quietly subversive novel from an author who totally knows what she is doing. Harsh tonic or sweet balm? Yes, a bit of both.
TINA SHAW is the author of numerous works of fiction for both adults and children. Her last novel was The Children’s Pond.