Claire Messud said something once that resonated with me and still does. “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’” This after the vitriol over her ‘unlikeable’ woman protagonist in The Woman Upstairs—another one of my favorite books.
I’ve noticed through numerous reviews that some people read to find these surrogate friends and characteristics they can relate to then become unreasonably disapproving and exacting when these characters are not the paragons of perfection that meet certain standards, ultimately extending that critical view towards the author; this especially so if the author is marginalized. We’ll call these reviewers ‘gatekeepers’, if you will. To some people, this is an easy perfunctory almost complacent act to become the arbiters of the vast knowledge of human struggle because maybe their limited experience and lofty entitlement and privilege give them the means to do so without a more philosophically extensive understanding and participation in that vast level of human experience? Or perhaps it is not the lack of wisdom, they’re simply churlish, cruel, or closed-minded?
I’m sure at one point in time we’ve all been there reacting emotionally and inconsiderately to something that is not quite the way we envision or want it to be perhaps seeing something of ourselves within this act or behaviors and denying it because we fear the unknown and stigma of what happens when and if we do. I empathize; this is the human experience; no one person can be a model of perfection; it just isn’t so given each person’s definition of perfection and the situation and context are arbitrarily their own. The question of whether we go through these failed experiences is moot because we all do, sometimes uniquely, sometimes not; the question is whether or not we stumble through the muck of human experience to pull ourselves through towards the wisdom on the other side holding steadfastly to the principles of compassion, empathy, and the openness and willingness to learn and be just or fair embarking on a dialogue towards such. Or do we stay stuck in the muck of it all and continue judging on our mighty thrones of power and privilege we find ourselves to be in right then? I’ll also note that simply because we have empathy and compassion for another person, doesn’t necessarily mean we agree with them, their actions, or their principles—or lack thereof; something very important to keep in the back of our mind when dealing with anyone or their story.
Tana French is an anthropologist of the human experience—a writer’s writer—and oftentimes her observations infuriate and trigger me making me extremely outraged and uncomfortable knowing that yes, this is the way it is and I cannot do anything about it but give my voice to the victims that her books so expertly portray. These last two books have so skillfully forged the nuance and arbitrariness of systemic privilege rooted around small-town tribal practices—or as one reviewer put it “…small towns have their own deeply ingrained codes and mores…” And yes, this is where white cisgender Christian patriarchy is born and so insidiously thrives. She challenges you to ponder on who the actual victims are and who holds the power.
I read Cal—a retired Chicago PD protagonist who migrated to Chicago from North Carolina and then, in the book’s present day, to Ireland—as a Black man, and Trey—the Irish teen—as white knowing they both were most likely written white. I tried to suspend belief in certain areas given my experience of white small-town America though knowing little of white small-town Ireland; nevertheless, I have all kinds of questions now about small towns in Ireland as viewed through a differing racial perspective, specifically what is the perspective of a Black Irish man or woman or teen of this narrative. Why? Because I’ve read several reviews that indicate Cal is white and Trey is Black. If any of these characters were acknowledged as Black, I must’ve missed it and since Ireland has a Black population of less than two percent, I doubt it. Red lights kept popping up all over the place for me as I read it through a differing racial perspective, including the cautionary aspects certain situations signaled to me as a white queer woman and former teen with extensive small-town experience. Cal reeked of privilege because he’s lucky to still be living and prospering at the end of that novel whereas more than a few of us would not be so lucky. And to comment more on Trey’s storyline would be to give the spoiler away. Besides, I’m still thinking about that storyline in and above itself.
Regardless, when I’m reading, I’m the observer—the anthropologist and the philosopher attempting to search out questions upon questions about the character’s lived experiences; how I can empathize with them and what can I learn from them, and my own personal curiosity of taking everything down rabbit holes—inspiration to other creative thought and philosophizing on other sociopolitical concerns and perspectives. I most empathize with Trey and their family as it is the one I can specifically relate to so I don’t really need to further connect with Trey because I was Trey, though I need to widen the learning experience to age differences in the modern world and the Irish culture and such, so there is that information to discover; I, however, do need to learn from and empathize with the other characters. As an American outsider to a foreign country, I empathize with Cal, the former North Carolinian, who doesn’t want to interfere and stir up trouble and disturb his complacent newly retired existence where, after his former life of Chicago PD, he just wants to live without the hassle because he is so very tired. Ultimately, emotions and principles, and experience lead him to somewhat of an awareness and understanding of what is happening even though, in the end, he cannot fundamentally change the outcome because it is the way it is (reminiscent of his experience with Chicago PD). “You take what comes your way, I suppose.” One local tells Cal. “Mostly doesn’t seem like there’s much of a choice,” Cal replies. It is at this point where I ask that if you are not aware of the history of Chicago PD, you need to delve into that, and yes, please do view it from differing racial perspectives.
In the end, I’m not surprised when Cal chooses to stay and use what little power he thinks he has to help Trey. Is he really though? Doesn’t seem like he has much of a choice, does it? And that is where my questions and challenges reside if he is a white man—a white American man; a white American policeman who connected immediately and used his power with the other white Irish policeman. Could he have tested and pushed those boundaries further? What about the colonialism or outsider aspects? There is a bigger and complicated context to the narrative and I don’t wanna give it away—spoilers and all. This book is discussion fodder for larger questions on so many sociopolitical fronts—the biggest one is can we get a Black Irish man or woman’s perspective because in all honesty, I’ve had the white man’s perspective and I find it still lacking in awareness and that’s where French soars; she puts it out there so blatantly and honestly that I dunno how anyone could miss it and still they do, which both infuriates me and challenges me.
The Witch Elm is also a supremely nuanced look at white male privilege and I would highly recommend that book as well as anything Tana French writes.
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