A Novel about Female Memory: The Glass Door by R.M. Clarke
Since the #MeToo movement uncoiled and private matters have become public – Belfast, Blasey – women have been on trial for their memories. Female experience has always been branded ‘alleged’, placed in a box marked ‘personal’. Women’s stories are insular, subjective; so we are told. Their perception is caged, turned in like an ingrown hair, lacking the power or the reach to affect anything other than themselves. In cases like these where at one end of the scale is a powerful man with everything to lose and the other is a woman who has already lost almost everything, we repeatedly see concern tilt the scales in favour of possible consequences for the abuser, rather than the lived and enduring consequences that have impacted the woman who has survived in spite of them. A man’s experience has influence, breadth; it is written into law, built into the foundations of cities. A woman’s is limited to the boundary of her skin.
Women’s fiction is often treated the same way. Hemingway used his own experience as the foundation from which to build stories he named fictional and was lauded for it; a woman writer might do the same and be labelled ‘too much’ – effulgently passionate, overly sentimental, divorced from the sharp scalpel of reason, tilting ever closer to the bad lands of hysteria. Female experience’s sphere of influence often remains – as we see from what is playing out around us in courtrooms and online where a woman says what she knows to be true and a man bleats that she is wrong – domestic, stuck behind an immovable front door, where a woman’s sense of autonomy and authority, on some gripping subconscious level, stubbornly remains (and even then, not always). And if a female experience of the world and events that take place in it contradicts the story the ones with everything to lose like to tell us, that door is locked and sealed, the key force fed to the prisoner inside it like some awful nightmare we fight to free ourselves from. But this is not a nightmare. Just like the woman in the yellow wallpaper, we are trapped inside a prison that is imposed upon us by the world and kept in place by our own self-censure, a censure that can only dissolve by being slowly eroded away by us, albeit painfully, drastically, as though we were removing our own skins.
In The Glass Door, Rosie recounts her memories from omniscient foetus to world-walking child, but her reality is being questioned by a doctor of the mind who knows better. Everything is against her, her youth, her gender, her bouts of transgressive madness, while Dr. Waters, who controls Rosie’s story with the swing of a hypnotist’s pendulum, has everything in his favour: he gets to decide what is true. Regardless of what Rosie knows – a feeling thing, and feelings, as we have all been taught to believe, cannot be trusted – the doctor is always right. In this book, Rosie, not yet thirteen years old, senses the deep injustice at work in the system she has been born into and tries to rail against it, and against all the oppressive worlds men have built about her; whether it is her father, who instead of giving love abandons her for his addiction; or her stepfather, who is frightened by her growing sexual maturity and independence and seeks to control it, and her mother, with tightened purse strings and violence. There are spots of light for Rosie: her friend, Peter, a budding scientist from a sweetly ideal family; her dog, Dog. Brief softening points on a landscape that is otherwise harsh, discontented, unfulfilling. A basic energetic blueprint that for all Rosie’s apparently magical thinking is uncomfortably true to life.
This book, in many ways, feels remote to me now. Having begun writing it ten years ago, first on scraps of paper, Austen style, on the bed in my room of the North London flat I shared with my flatmate, to being in that strange wilderness between being written and being published for seven, I no longer really know Rosie. She is a distant relative, someone I used to know, and yet she’s here now, asking you to meet her, a decade on. Why did I write this book, then? I wanted to say – well, I didn’t know really – but I knew it had something to do with a sadness I had carried all my life, something like Diana Athill’s ‘deep awfulness’; a sense of longing that could never be fulfilled, a half-fullness, an unbelonging. It wasn’t just that I was a woman, and the words I said were smiled at politely, glossed over, seen through, even more so that I was an actress, and expected to say the ones they had written for me on the page. It was a deep sense of betrayal, that life had tempted me to it then turned its back, because of what I was. What I had been made as. I did not write with what felt like intentionality then but looking back I see the same root locus around which I always circulate, in the way all people who are drawn to write tend to, this collective of particular obsessives that we call writers. It could be a certain place that won’t loosen its grip over you – the town you grew up in, or your old university. It could be a person who haunts you, showing up again in a different hat, this time with a moustache, this time a freshly laundered shirt. It could be a writer’s own image, reflected back to him as he stares out across the sea, or looks down a camera lens, or into the face of another nameless woman. Mine? How people use power. How people abuse it.
I had come to know that, intimately. I feared shadows in the night, the unlit landing, words whispered and obscene. This, I have learned, is how many, many women – too many – feel. It is absorbed into the body, a watchfulness that doesn’t ever seem to want to ease. The Glass Door, though it feels old to me, seems to be speaking about now more than it could have spoken about then a decade ago. That world, then, is still the one we are living in, but now, brick by brick, we are dismantling it. Skin by skin, a new self is being birthed.
(c) R.M. Clarke
About The Glass Door:
Then the leaves whispered, the branches creaked. Something was up above, watching. Hello? She could feel eyes upon her. She knew she was not alone anymore: Who’s there? Then a voice came back to her: You found me. After all this time.
The Glass Door is a haunting investigation into the deep, complex and often frightening labyrinth of the human mind, where three generations of Irish women learn to tread the difficult path of reconciling individual identity with social approval. It is a novel about absence and brokenness and longing, and a small and fractured family trying to figure things, and each other, out.
Set in the 1970s and 80s between the east coast of Ireland and London, Rosie’s story unfolds as she and her unwed mother Sandra chase her reluctant father across the sea, where he slips through their grasp and disappears, leaving emptiness in Rosie’s hand where a work-roughened palm should be. Mother and daughter are forced by failure and poverty to return home to the bitter embrace of Rosie’s grandmother, Marie, whose love for her daughter and granddaughter is poisoned by her desire for social acceptance. But the strange child Rosie grows increasingly stranger, especially at night, when her unpredictable behaviour becomes both frightening and dangerous. Sandra, coming under growing pressure, both from Marie and the society she lives in, must find a new man to take Rosie’s father’s place. But once she does things only get worse for her and Rosie. After years spent enduring years an increasingly disturbed home life, everything comes to a deadly climax.
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