It’s been said that your first book is always an autobiography, however well-fictionalized. For Winnie Li and Dark Chapter, that truism as literally true – both author and protagonist were raped by an Irish teenager while on a hiking vacation in Ireland. As did Ms. Li, Dark Chapter‘s Vivian Tan dismissed her sense of unease until it was too late. Later, both face their rapists and saw them convicted. Vivian’s story closely parallels Li’s. You can read more about the truth behind the fiction in this article in the Irish Times.
Grappling with a traumatic experience through writing is common enough, and to wrest a publishable book from the experience is laudable, but to achieve an Edgar nom is only slightly short of miraculous. What takes Dark Chapter out of the “here is the horrible thing that happened” category of fictionalized memoir is Winnie Li’s decision to tell both stories: that of the raped woman and the rapist boy.
She does so with some psychological insight and craft, alternating between Vivian’s perspective and that of the boy who rapes her. John Michael Sweeney is a traveler, born rough and raised rougher. He loves his ma, but the girls he kisses, fingers and forces into sex are less than people to him. His panic following the rape, the way his friends and brother support and help him, is contrasted with his father’s expectation that he turn himself in and take responsibility for his action. The reader has limited sympathy for Johnny, and no small measure of disgust.
Vivian Tan is a career woman in a glamorous field, with a good head on her shoulders despite some poor decision-making, and she is steadfast in her decision to hold Sweeney accountable. She is so steadfast that the reader is distanced from the pain and trauma Vivian experiences following the assault. The confusion regarding her background – is she a Chinese tourist? No, American – rings true but isn’t really necessary to the plot.
As a debut novelist, Winnie Li has chosen a compelling story – her own. But it seems to me that she has adhered too faithfully to the facts as she sees them, resulting in a plot that marches forward. How characters are presented is particularly important in any book, but particularly so for Edgar nominees. But there is too much good in the good Vivian and too much bad in the bad Johnny. Neither character has much complexity.
Men come off particularly badly in Dark Chapter. Where are the good guys? I sincerely hope that in real life, Winnie Li has found a strong, supportive, loving man to be her partner in life. The shallow narcissist that is protagonist Vivian’s first post-rape boyfriend is just too real to be fiction. And Winnie – heck, every woman! – deserves better.
How does Dark Chapter stack up to the two already reviewed nominees? For the faults noted above, it will go to the bottom of the ranking.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best First Novel