Sonya Hartnett: Surrender

Hartnett, Sonya (2005), Surrender, Walker Books
ISBN 1-84428-656-8

Now, after the last, needlessly digressive review, I’ll try to wrap up things quickly here. Surrender is a very, very good book. Maybe this is one of those books you should just read without reading any reviews first? I have no idea whether I can spoil the reader’s enjoyment with the review, but here’s the thing: this is an extraordinary novel by an extraordinary writer. It’s central conceit, revealed near the end, is not very original nor very surprising, but the novel itself is full of surprises, smaller and bigger ones. Summing up its basic plot, about a small town boy who has experienced violence and hands it back to the world around him, doesn’t begin to do justice to it. Like any great novel, it sheds layer after layer, continuously delivering pleasures to the reader, many of them hidden in the language, which crawls with brilliant and evocative metaphors, suffusing the whole book with a feeling of mystique and earthiness. As I sit here, thinking about the book, I find myself unsure whether a review, however oblique, will not spoil some readers’ enjoyment of this book. Here’s what I say: Surrender is one of the best novels of its kind that I have read this year; if you trust my judgment at all, read it, read it, read it.

Surrender is divided into short chapters that are narrated either by a boy named Gabriel, who is actually called Anwell, or by his wild friend Finnigan. From the very first chapter we are aware that something is amiss in their friendship, and in Gabriel’s dealings with the world in general. It’s not just that we start in a hospital ward, as we are told that Gabriel is terminally ill, he’s “dying: it’s a beautiful word. Like the long slow sigh of a cello: dying.” and then we hear from him why “the sound of it is the only beautiful thing about it.”:

Several times a week I must be cleaned. Water comes to me on a sponge. I must lift my arms shift my heels, lower my flaming eyes. […] I am proffered a pan, and the sight of it shames me; at other times I cannot call for it fast enough. […] I am addressed as if an idiot, cooed over as though a child. […] I am poked, prodded, pinched and flensed, I’m needled and wheedled and cajoled. My existence is nothing but a series of humiliations, what little life is left to me can hardly be called my own.

In these last quotes we can see two characteristics of Surrender‘s language. It is both concerned with the purely aesthetic values of language, the sounds, rhythms and other prosodic qualities of words. At times, the book’s narrative seems to leap into song straight off the page; what’s more, Hartnett is capable of creating two distinct voices, two different varieties of song, two different registers, who both work marvelously. The end would not be as powerful and even devastating if her control of the musical qualities of language were not so consummate. That said, it needs to be pointed out that her style is not subtle; Hartnett is no Updike, she doesn’t go for smoothness, something that she developed as a writer of children’s fiction, where style often seems far more upfront, engaging the reader and his energies in a more direct way. At the same time, her writing also manages to tap the sense of wonder that makes so much great children’s literature so glorious, but we will return to that.

The other characteristic that we were able to see in the quotes above is the directness of the images, the unapologetic use of grimy, dirty, even, in the latter half of the book, brutal imagery. It is not, clearly, Hartnett’s intention of shocking the reader, she references bodily functions and defects in order to issue her characters with a body. That is no small matter; particularly in a novel such as Surrender authors are often liable to concentrate upon a psychological scheme, exploring the heads of its characters without considering the bodies attached to them. The contrast to Brian Evenson’s novel The Open Curtain, for instance, that is similar in many ways, is telling. Evenson bypassed a whole bushel of concerns and problems by constructing his protagonist as a head with an unimportant appendage. As many great children’s book writers, no, as many great writers period, Hartnett tries to take nothing for granted; in her rather short (251 pp in my edition) novel, she constructs her character from the ground up, offering many kinds of explanations for his development and his actions.

In order for this to work, words and images often have to perform triple duties, signifying multiple things all at once. Like Evenson, for example (see my review), the meanings of her names are an important, necessary element of her book where nothing appears to be arbitrary. That Anwell, a lonely, forsaken boy, would shed his name, which is Welsh and mean “the loved one” (that he would be called by such an ill-fitting name is another of many cruel ironies of his life) and assume the name of Gabriel, “the strong man of God”, an angel, no less, a strong, vengeful person, is understandable. But this change of name also touches upon issues of agency and narration, since angels are God’s messengers (as Gabriel himself says in the book: “I am Gabriel, the messenger, the teller of astonishing truth”), blame ultimately reverts to God, who is also a figure of authority and respect; he’s generally also read as kind and loving. I realize these remarks are too reductive and short, but you could write whole pages about these two names in the novel alone and not be finished; this is true of every name in Surrender, as it is of all or most other images, words and phrases. A friend recently told me that novels tend to babble more, whereas short stories and poems need to be concise, need every word to matter. Well, apparently Hartnett did not get that memo. Her writing is always careful and conscientious, with every word counting.

I sense a hunger for meaning in this kind of writing that is reproduced in Gabriel’s narrative. Gabriel’s greedy to understand what happens, he “need[s] the world caught inside the black pit of [his] eyes”. He has not been served well by the world, and on his deathbed, he feels like a trustee, surveying the remnants of his life. When Finnigan, his unruly wildboy friend, tells him that “the bones” (we do not learn until the very end of the book what bones these are) have been found, Gabriel, finally, starts to relate to us the events of his life that have led to his present situation. He is energized by that event:

The fact that it’s found is at my shoulders like a swarm, pushing me through the slop and fug, up and up the mountain. The earth I touch with my hands is cold (the earth is mine, the dirt, the seeds, the grass, the worms, the cracks, the clods, all of it, all). The mud makes cakes on my knees. Up high the breeze is colder, and smells like a snake’s belly, and bites with a snake’s fang.

The earth like (as I said) everything in the book is many things at once, but most importantly, maybe, it’s the earth where the bones were buried. By using the earth as burial ground, the protagonist assumes control of it; not in reality, of course, but in his mind, he colonizes it, he fills it up with his spirit and takes control of it. This is a general quality of his thinking; here’s where his body becomes interesting: this assumption of control, of bending something, even unconsciously, happens with his body as well. Hartnett does not, as many weaker writers would, misuse bodily defects as cheap metaphors. She shows how agitations of the mind can effect the body. That she does not factor out the body is a strength, it helps us situate Gabriel/Anwell, as a person, it also demonstrates the interdependence of mind, body and surroundings.

This is especially important in Surrender, which, in many ways, is an exploration of what Adorno called the authoritarian character. Apart from being a complex character study of Gabriel, it is also a study of small town dynamics and how a family fares as outsiders of the community. This triple relationship between family, town and Gabriel is maybe the most astonishingly accomplished part of the book. The town, Mulyan, is a rural town, and

there was no sadder sound in Mulyan than the moaning of the cows which, every other month or so, were crowded into these yards, smacked and spooked and harried and jostled, and offered up for sale. Separated from their companions and calves, they would call chestily to each other until the mountains reverberated with their sighs.

Gabriel’s family are outsiders in Mulyan, kooks, as Finnigan calls them, largely because of their sick mother, who lives in a room in the house, not wanting to be disturbed, she’s closed off from the world, like a wraith, suffering from a mysterious illness. Mulyan is like many other towns in rural areas, it instinctively rejects what it sees as deviations from the healthy norm, it rejects what it sees as strange, as, in short: malfunctioning. But this is not from conscious hate and prejudice, it’s ingrained in the culture, in everyday behavior, it’s instinctive, thus being both more flexible than conscious prejudice and more immovable at the same time. So when a series of fires break out in town, suspicions arise, attitudes change, but there is no open persecution, no witch hunt instigated.

Into this lack of overt hate, Gabriel’s father pours his energies. Gabriel tells us how his father starts to instigate a hunt on the arsonist. Gabriel’s father wants to restore order to his town, and, I think, ingratiate himself to the townsfolk, trying to create room for himself and his kooky family in Mulyan’s society. One would think that a man who is so intent upon creating and restoring order, would be supportive of the police in their efforts, but he distrusts the young policeman who is in command in Mulyan, he thinks him weak and, above all incompetent, and “Father despised incompetence”. He then raises a vigilante committee, to take matters in his own hands, and even threatens to depose the police officer. Both the town as well as his family create an atmosphere of fear for Gabriel, who is liberated, almost, by his friendship with Finnigan, a boy who is described as unruly. Finnigan and Gabriel have a pact, which allows Finnigan to do bad things, if Gabriel covers for him and only does good deeds, or at least not bad ones.

As many other self-declared unruly or anarchistic or nihilistic persons (the popular slander of Nietzsche comes to mind), Finnigan isn’t truly unruly, he just rejects the particular rules of his society, which is Mulyan, but he insists that his own rules are upheld, and he is true to his word, as far as his pact with Gabriel is concerned. To take up the novel’s title: there are many kinds of surrenders that people offer to others, and everybody’s surrender appears to fuel Finnigan’s resistance, his determination to stay put, it reinforces his fidelity, even, to his own rules, because they provide stability. The last important character I should mention is called “Surrender”, it’s first Gabriel’s and then Finnigan’s dog. Surrender is a wild dog, Gabriel’s violent, yet stalwart companion. As the remembered events draw to a close, or rather, to a cataclysmic finale, we see that it is Surrender who precipitates everything, by being, once again, not true to his name.

Surrender is, as I said, an excellent book, moving, disturbing, and very well written. The conceit of the book is transparent, you will have a hunch early on and the rest of the book just reinforces that impression, yet when the final, explosive events are told, we are still affected, still, somewhat, surprised, if only by the blast of the final events. Overall, however, the accumulation of history and details has, like many realist novels, the effect of a tragedy without harmatia. This is not a realist novel, however, it’s better described as magical realism; the dreams and memories, that colonize the ‘real’ world, do it in such a complete and complex way, that it feels like a blanket of magic draped over a realist landscape. And Hartnett’s language is instrumental in making all of this work.


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