On the fate of disfigured women

Dead No More, by Pete Adams and Alejandro’s Lie by Bob van Laerhoven

Both of the books I have read this week feature disfigured women. They are – let me make clear at the outset – very different books. Dead No More, by British author Pete Adams, is an eccentric and fanciful crime story, cut through with family drama and surreal comedy. Alejandro’s Lie, by Flemish author Bob van Laerhoven, is a serious, heavyweight political thriller. I would struggle to make any comparison between them, except in this one feature. Perhaps it was this that brought the parallel to such sharpness in my mind. Juliet and Beatriz – sharing nothing in narrative style or genre or personality, but both beautiful, disfigured women at the beating heart of the novels they inhabit.

Juliet is already disfigured at the start of Dead No More – the victim of historic injury, sustained in an horrendous accident which has killed her parents. We are told that this disfigurement “troubled others when they first met Juliet, and she was mercilessly ribbed by her school friends, not that she had many of those; scarred people were convenient pariahs, still, even in these politically correct times.

What is unusual is that this the novel does not stop there. It does not render this disfigured young woman as a tragic victim. Her disfigurement does not exclude her from an active part in the drama, does not condemn her to sacrifice. “Juliet had developed a strength that was her armour; a thick skin would be too cruel a description… but her superior intelligence defied the appearance of the crushed and repaired skull; there was strength in this girl”. And she is not only strong and a survivor: she is also tender and feminine. She has a lover who appreciates her in an uncomplicated way, she is a major player in the drama and gets through the book rather triumphantly and without major mishap.

All credit to you, Pete Adams. Juliet is by no means the only powerful woman in Dead No More, but even in a strong ensemble, she remains impressive. You have done well with Juliet.

Alejandro’s Lie, by Bob van Laerhoven is an altogether more challenging book but it takes a more conventional line with its disfigured female. Like Juliet, Beatriz is a major player in the book though not quite its lead. This is a book full of men, in which Beatriz is the only woman of any significance – unless one counts a teenage girl who is something of a pawn in the story.

At the opening of the book Beatriz is still beautiful – a questing, independent woman who has escaped from a sterile, crushing marriage. Her ex-husband is a powerful figure in the brutal corrupt Junta in which the book is set, and Beatriz is now toying – perhaps as something of a privileged dilettante – with the resistance movement that is challenging it. Through that engagement, she falls in with Alejandro – a musician who has recently been released from ten years of political imprisonment in a notorious jail. He is a character positioned in a role that requires him to be courageous, loyal, strong – but actually he is none of these. One knows throughout the book, and with growing clarity, that Beatriz is the stronger character, and that Alejandro is somehow not worthy of her. And Beatriz – though she does not want to – knows this too.

Yet Alejandro loves her. He is attracted to her beauty.

Feminine beauty is essentially fragile, ephemeral, like a flower. To belong to ‘the fair sex’ is to be on a trajectory where one’s value diminishes every day as the finite currency of youth is spent. For most women the loss of beauty is less abrupt than it proves to be for Beatriz, and the crash course towards extinction that this triggers is less dramatic. But the journey is familiar. Even at the start of the book, before her disfigurement, Beatriz is on the cusp of this disaster. She senses this, as she first contemplates the possibility of a sexual liaison with Alejandro, worrying that she may already be too old to be valued by him. She reminds herself that “she was thirty-two, past it by Terreno’s macho-standards, and shouldn’t want to spoil the contact with the man in her living room, whom she found interesting”. And Alejandro, too, can sense it. Even at the very moment of desire, he notices her “girlish suppleness matured poignantly by small imperfections here and there”. Yes. Poignant.

Her more radical disfigurement, towards the end of the book, arises from an act of torture that a more courageous man could perhaps have halted. “On the floor, Beatriz turned her head and looked straight at Alejandro. It took a few seconds before Alejandro realized that she was not looking at him. He followed her gaze to the counter where Ricardo had carelessly left his rifle. Alejandro only had to take two steps to get it. Her head turned with short jerks on the stone floor. Now she looked at him, with eyes telling everything: please, grab the gun, shoot…” In one of the most excruciating scenes I have ever read in any novel, Alejandro does not do so. He runs away.

Beatriz is left damaged and no longer beautiful, confronting a different life from the one she took for granted. She still has the uneasy love of Alejandro, for what little it is worth, but her disfigurement destroys her as a woman. Throughout the story she has been strong, but now she is stronger. What one suspects however, is that this is not the strength that comes – as it has with Juliet – from the survival of adversity. It is the tragic strength that comes from having nothing to lose. Without beauty, she is devalued. She becomes expendable, to the story, to the reader, even to herself. Perhaps she is even a bit of an embarrassment. Perhaps, just perhaps, the heroic conclusion which the author offers is a bit of a conventional cop out?

Why, meneer van Laerhoven, why? Are you not an author who problematizes conventions rather than bows to them? Did you not notice what you were doing?

You protest. I hear you protest. Not fair! Did I not make Beatriz, at the end, the true hero of the novel? Was her sacrifice not brave, admirable, honorable? Of course it was. In rather the same way, through all my growing up, the lot of the sympathetic lesbian character (a woman as much an afront to femininity as an ugly one) was to be tragic, heroic and ultimately sacrificed. In that role – dead by the end of the novel – she could be rendered acceptable. So it is, perhaps, with the woman no longer beautiful.

***

But forgive me. This whole meditation is an outrageous abuse of two interesting books. I take one tiny bone out of the skeleton of each of them, and I run around like an excited spaniel, shaking these two bones and tossing them up in the air and catching them again, as if nothing else mattered. Forget the above.

Both books, in their very different ways, were impressive and moving. Dead No More did not make me think very hard – indeed the reading of it required me, I felt, to suspend most critical thought processes. The plot is very silly. The characters, although beautifully drawn, are mostly a bit preposterous. In a few weeks I will probably have forgotten how the narrative worked out, I will simply remember the eccentric feel of the book, its wanton celebration of diversity, some tender sentiments, and a handful of glorious surreal moments when I laughed out loud. Amnesic or otherwise, I will probably recall some pleasure.

Alejandro’s Lie I will remember forever and possibly wish that I didn’t. It’s a perfectly crafted story and I will remember, I fear, its exquisitely uncompromising detail. It is a book that – Bob van Laerhoven’s trademark – worms itself into the reader’s mind and robs one of compromise. It never made me laugh. It never gave me that sense of triumph that I wanted. There was the moment by moment, page-turning distraction of the thriller plot – What would happen next? How would it end up? But ultimately, behind all that excitement, it was like looking into a well, searching for water at the bottom, wanting a glint of reflected sky, my own face even. Were you teasing me, meneer van Laerhoven, when you ended the book thus: “For an eternity, the lightning clarified everything”? I did not see lightning reflected in any water. As I peered into the well, I never found the bottom of the darkness.

Review by De Gevallene

Dead No More by Pete Adams

Alejandro’s LIe by Bob van Laerhoven

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