The Words for Her by Thomasin Sleigh (Lawrence & Gibson, 2023), 288pp, $30
The Words for Her, Thomasin Sleigh’s third pakimaero or novel, takes the current moral panic about smartphones and turns it into a Covidesque real global crisis.
The premise is that people all around the world have started ‘going out’—disappearing from photos and video, and becoming unfilmable. Society starts to collapse as the ‘gaps’ (people who have gone out) become more and more numerous. The ‘presents’ (people who have not gone out) start photographing everyone around them compulsively. Cult leaders emerge and governments crack down.
It’s a gripping scenario and I read the entire pukapuka in one day. The Words for Her is told in the first person from the point of view of Jodie Pascoe, a single mother living in poverty in Whakatāne. She is reflecting on her life in hindsight, in writing addressed to her six-year-old daughter Jade. She wants both to describe Jade as intimately as possible and to create a record of why she has made the decisions she has. This creates an immediate tension as we are not sure whether Jade has survived the crisis.
Jodie’s father was blinded in an industrial accident and since childhood she has developed the habit of ‘colouring’ for him—that is, describing the quotidian details of the world out loud in plain, precise language: ‘I was a funnel that turned images into words.’ Jodie describes colouring as ‘more of a feeling than a planned activity, as if all the right and good words already existed inside their objects and I just reached out and took them, said them. I didn’t invent them, they were already there, waiting for me to find them. When I coloured, I didn’t have to try.’
Jodie says repeatedly that the right word is much more important than a fancy one. As the story progresses Jodie starts to realise that her rapid-fire spoken descriptions of the world around her have a kind of occult power: ‘there were words around me that I could use if I needed to. They were in my mind but also in my throat, a kind of resource, a wealth.’ In her twenties, Jodie becomes enmeshed in a relationship with a man who turns out to be abusive. In response she develops the power of ‘shading’—naming all the things she can see out loud until she seems to become almost invisible to him, in order to escape his anger.
Jodie’s best friend Miri is also stuck in an abusive relationship. Miri has long been familiar with Jodie’s colouring and one evening she sees Jodie shading. Miri demands that Jodie shade her in order to facilitate her escape from her violent partner. Jodie complies, albeit uneasily, and gradually starts to fear that in so doing she has somehow caused the global ‘going out’ crisis.
Jodie is a compelling protagonist because, although she clearly has a special power, she is not a chosen one and she does not save the world. Her concerns are much closer to home: protecting Jade, worrying about childcare and bills, hoping her car doesn’t crap out on her so that she can keep her job at the mill. It takes her a long time to acknowledge the power that she has, and even then her primary response is fear. She is afraid both of what she can do and that this will lead to her being exploited and separated from her whānau. This fear is reasonable: it soon becomes obvious that she is being monitored by a person or persons unknown. This lends even more dramatic tension to The Words for Her—as well as the collapse of supply chains and unemployment being general threats to Jodie and Jade’s wellbeing, there is also a much more targeted menace against Jodie personally.
Sleigh’s previous pakimaero have also been very concerned with ideas about surveillance and what effect being filmed and photographed has on one’s sense of self. It’s clear she has thought about these ideas deeply, and so the world she creates in The Words for Her is satisfyingly complex. One gap describes the process of ‘going out’ as ‘like someone tugging each of my fingers, one after the other, at the knuckle, like I was being opened up, unlocked, loosened, but also, at the same time, I was closed away, shut up, so that no one could see me anymore, and I could keep my secrets and not let anyone in. It felt like both of those things at the same time.’
Being a gap has both pros and cons. Some of the gaps report feeling more real and more in the world, now that they are freed from constant curation of their own image: ‘it’s a light, being gone, it’s my right now, to decide who sees me’. Groups of gaps band together to create new communities: ‘Our society is free from the tyranny of the image. Free from the constant desire to be seen. Our citizens are alive with connection but without vanity. We are no longer alienated from our true selves.’ Other gaps start to become dissociated and forgetful, losing track of time and place as they disappear from the historical record: ‘How will we be … in the future, now that we can’t look back?’ Parents of children born gone freak out: ‘Without photos of their child, they couldn’t hold themselves in a time and place … They got caught in a kind of intense hyperactive present of trying to remember every moment … What would it be like if the baby had never seen itself in an image? Would the baby understand itself? Would it feel whole or real or normal? Nobody knew.’ Heartbreakingly, some present parents start to forget their own children who have ‘gone out’, even though physically they are still right there: ‘Like their brains are too connected to their phones, and if their kids aren’t in their phones, they can’t really see them anymore.’
Photographs and videos seem in some ways like such an ephemeral part of life but Sleigh has thought through lots of different impacts of disappearing from the visual record entirely. One of the All Blacks goes out and he gets fired, because although he can still play rugby, now ‘nobody can watch him play rugby’. Criminal convictions are overturned once the photographic evidence no longer exists. Some gaps start looting, confident that they won’t show up on any security cameras: ‘They felt as if they didn’t have to follow normal rules, that they were outside of things, and they could do what they liked.’ Society starts fracturing in the creation of a distinct societal ‘other’ in a way that feels disturbingly familiar.
Sleigh has worked for many years as an art critic and I was struck by the way The Words for Her is concerned with the power of words to create and uncreate visual images. Jodie’s colouring and shading feel like witchy incantations and a lot of Sleigh’s prose has a rhythmic, recurring quality, like the chanting of a spell. This does become mildly irritating at times and I think that The Words for Her could have done with a slightly tighter edit. But this is a minor quibble: the gentle, repetitive cadence of the sentences is mostly well balanced by the urgency and tension of the overarching story.
In its unsettling oddness, The Words for Her reminds me of Pip Adam’s Nothing to See, and of Sharon Lam’s Lonely Asian Woman. It’s a very brainy pakimaero that is nonetheless highly readable. The Words for Her also reminded me of the TV show Shrinking. As I was watching this recently, I noticed that I kept thinking about how each line of dialogue had so clearly been written by scriptwriters: a stream of perfectly crafted quips, one after the other. It continually called attention to its own writerliness in a way that interrupted the flow of my viewing but that was nonetheless still enjoyable. Shrinking and The Words for Her are nothing alike in terms of plot or tone, but they share an insistence on the importance and power of the right choice of words. (And now I’m wondering how one might make a TV show about unfilmable people.)
Stories such as The Words for Her hinge on their final act, which in thrillers and the horror genre is often the weakest. As I read I started to worry about whether Sleigh would make the landing-down stick—but she does. I can’t give any details without spoilers but suffice to say that I found the ending narratively satisfying in terms of Jodie’s character development while not overexplaining the ‘going out’ or attempting to solve the dystopian global situation. The universal stakes remain high enough to be alarming, but the perspective is presented through localised characters who are convincingly portrayed. This pukapuka creates a world that leaves you wanting more while also establishing a definite conclusion.
ELIZABETH HERITAGE is a reviewer and writer who lives in Te Whanganui-a-Tara in the rohe of Te Āti Awa. She has a first-class honours degree in English and History from the University of Otago Te Whare Wānanga o Ōtākou.