Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Damage by Josephine Hart — 208 pgs


In this intense and shocking novel, an unnamed narrator details the treacherous and frightening spiral from his life of ease and comfort into one of depravity and obsession. The narrator, a well-to-do politician and doctor with a beautiful wife and two children, has always felt that things have come to him too easily and nothing he's attained has truly been a challenge for him. He walks through life with a deep sense of ennui, content to live his life in the shadow of a deep seated discomfort and numbness, when one day his son, Martyn, brings home the latest in a series of women. But Anna, Martyn's new girlfriend, is different, and the narrator immediately takes notice of her in some disturbing ways, feeling instantly as though he has finally met one of his own kind. The relationship between this man and Anna is instantaneously deviant and sexually fearsome, and soon the narrator is being slowly driven mad with the compulsion to possess Anna in every way. This is a serious problem, for Martyn has marriage in mind, and though he allows Anna the freedom that she needs to be who she is, he doesn't realize that she is abusing his trust. As the narrator becomes more and more obsessed with this odd woman, whom his wife also feels strangely about, his life begins to crumple and distort in a series of events that will shatter not only him his family, but anyone connected to Anna as well. Deeply physiologically disturbing, this close and spare novel immediately grabs you in its teeth and shakes you, until finally you are left spent and breathless, marveling at the cruelty and deception within it.

From the moment I began this book, there was a dark and portentous feeling surrounding me as I read. I think part of this comes from the fact that Hart knows her material and is able to be lush and spare at the same time, creating a sense of confinement and dread within the narrator's confession. For that is truly what this book really is, a confession of the dark misdeeds that the narrator succumbs to in his pursuit of Anna. The narrator himself is an odd fellow. He is supremely indifferent to all aspects of his life. From his loving wife to his perfect children, he feels almost nothing and strives to understand why he feels so dead inside. When he meets Anna, he becomes alive in a frightening instant and becomes obsessed with her in a way that is truly out of character for him, and truly worrisome to the reader.

Anna is a damaged person. She says this herself and explains to the narrator how dangerous people like her can be. She exists as a sort of repository for the narrator's growing obsession and doesn't really have any defining characteristics other than her ability to egg him on to further and further acts of madness. She is cold and calculating and seems to grow in her capacity for destruction as the narrator begins to sink into her. As he diminishes, she increases, and though he believes he's in control of everything that happens between them, in reality it is she who is in control. Something I noticed about Anna was how she passively pushes people to their extremes and then lets them believe their actions are their own idea, when in reality, she is the impetus for the destruction that takes place around her. She submits, but only when it's advantageous for her to do so, and she creates a sense of well being tempered with an acute anxiety for the narrator as she slowly strips his life away.

One could argue that all this destruction comes from the narrator himself, that he is, in fact, the hinge upon which all this madness rests. In my opinion, that would be to simple an assessment, for there's something about Anna that inspires rational people to do irrational things. In her quiet acquiescence she gives power and freedom to all sorts of malevolent ideas that seem to overtake people. Though she is rational and seems benign, she quietly unlocks all the secret desires of the people around her and sends them spinning out of control. The scariest thing about this is that Anna knows who and what she is and what she can do, and though she warns the narrator, she also strangely clings to him in an effort to live out her secret desire for domination. She is powerful, but also quiet and seemingly demure, her cacophony of malignancy resting just below a placid surface.

I felt a lot of discomfort reading this book, due to the curious sense of detachment exhibited by its characters, and when this all-consuming obsession and desperation took over the story, it was almost to unbearable to read about. The mental changes the narrator goes through are rather chilling and alarming, and by the time I turned the final page, I was unsettled and disturbed in way that bothered me but also made me wonder at Hart's awesome capacity for creating her story. Though our narrator has had his life, family and livelihood ripped away by his savage obsession with Anna, he still doesn't regret what he's done and still hungers for her both physically and mentally.

I loved this book, not only for its masterful style but for Hart's ability to get under my skin like a splinter and stay there. A lot of the book is written in a very direct and quiet way, but the story is chaotic and formidable, and it left me feeling vulnerable and unsettled in some vaguely strange ways. I think those readers who are looking for something that will riddle them with complex feelings and those who enjoy books that are deft yet sparse would love this one. I know I'm looking forward to reading more from Hart because I think she has an incredible narrative gift and the ability to create characters whose coldness is wondering and impeccable.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

15 comments:

Sandy Nawrot said...

Yowza! All of that in 200 pages? If you didn't know what was coming when you picked up this book, you would receive quite a shock. I am all over this one!

Jenny said...

Sounds creepy!!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I love all the descriptors in this post: lush, spare, all-consuming obsession, desperation... As Sandy says, there seems to be a lot packed into this smallish book!

bermudaonion said...

Holy cow, that sounds like some story. I can see that being made into a movie. What's strange is I know there are people like Anna out there, but I don't think I've ever known any of them.

Audra said...

Great review -- this sounds so twisted! I'm not sure I could stomach the tension, though -- I get so stressed when I read, it's ridiculous!

Amy said...

This sounds so creepy!! Yikes. Maybe a good read for around Halloween next year?

Marybeth said...

I am thankful for YOU this year! Your faithful comments never fail to make me smile. Thanks for journeying with me through both faith and fiction-- so glad we met this year!!

Marie said...

Oh, I remember the movie with Jeremy Irons. Sooo good. this sounds like a fabulous quick read. :-)

Darlene said...

I've always enjoyed books or movies having to do with obsession. It always fascinates me just how deeply a person can let themselves fall into an obsession of any sort. I'm going to have to check into this one...seems like one I'd like. I'm glad it was such a powerful read for you - that makes me want to read it more.

Suko said...

Riveting, descriptive, in-depth review, Zibilee. This sounds like quite a psychological thriller. Anna seems to have some sadistic tendencies beneath her benevolent facade.

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

WOW. I read your review, my mouth gaping open. This sounds incredible, and one that is certifiably disturbing, creepy, unsettling...all rolled into one. What an incredible sounding book -- something like this can be even more disturbing than a horror film of the supernatural, you know?

TheBookGirl said...

Your review was compelling, and it seems that the book is the same. Years ago I read something that would seem to be similar to this one -- A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein. I remember being very unsettled after reading it, but not at all sorry that I did.
Happy Thanksgiving!

Pam said...

This is incredibly intense review for what seems like a pretty intense book! I like it. I've been reading deeper stuff, lately (winter fog, I suppose) so this might be up my alley. Although, I might need something light before I take this one!

Jenny said...

Excellent review as always, and definitely definitely not my kind of book. I am rarely a fan of any kind of downward spiral, and sexual ones are particularly icky for me. I have a low tolerance, which I think can be put down to prudishness on my part.

Jenners said...

This sounds very very creepy and disturbing ... but in the best way possible. It seems like a lot to cover in a short amount of pages.

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