I’m not usually one for the forced tone and repetitive structure of epistolary novels, however, I was hooked on Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives from the very beginning.
Almost twenty years after forbidding contact, Vita receives a letter from Royce, who was once her benefactor. Vita, a film and ethnography student in her youth, was one of his brightest protégées.
Vita’s career has stalled, and Royce is dying – “I stew in sickness, and in my own nostalgia” – their correspondence is a catharsis of sorts. Royce tells of his first love, Kitty, who he followed to the ancient city of Pompeii while she pursued research work; and Vita, who was born in South Africa and migrated to Australia, grapples with identity and inter-generational guilt.
Within the first few pages, there are numerous references to Royce and Vita’s history. Ordinarily, these sorts of ‘hints’ would be strike me as lazy but the epistolary format is forgiving – mentions of the past in a letter don’t require a ‘back-story’, and it’s the complete lack of context that makes them intriguing. For example, Vita writes –
Nobody has ever been so invested in me making good on whatever raw talent I once possessed – not even my parents, for their love was always unconditional. Yours came with strings attached.
Dovey captures the changing dynamic of Royce and Vita’s relationship, their letters revealing neediness and duplicity. Royce is chauvinistic in a veiled, ‘I’m-old-fashioned-and-I-appreciate-fine-things’ way, and his letters occasionally have a threatening tone. Equally, Vita slips in her share of being cruel and condescending, playing the ‘tempestuous, youthful artist’ angle.
You see, Vita, talented people like you and Kitty have always needed people like me, benefactors of one kind or another… But what you might not know is that we have always needed you too. Status is linked to art and intellect…
There are many layers to this story. At the simplest level, it reveals opposites and extremes – repressed and excavated; the past and the present; the rulers and the slaves; desire and control; patron and artist; evidence and assumption. Vita coolly observes –
Contact should never be confused with comprehension.
These themes are magnified by Dovey’s canny use of the ruins of Pompeii and post-apartheid South Africa as her backdrop. The settings could have so easily been heavy-handed but instead, they’re fascinating, atmospheric, and informed, a geographical representation of the broader themes in the book.
So I come back to my general quibbles with epistolary novels – the forced tone, the clumsy detailing of issues or events – there were moments of this in Fugitives, with Royce and Vita framing their stories for an audience. But it’s such a clever novel and I figure the tone was intentional – Dovey’s way of illustrating Vita’s struggle with her identity and her perspective as an ethnographer. Early in the novel, Vita observes –
A confessional style of filmmaking was ascendant. It was the dawn of the age of baring it all. I liked my classmates’ work but I felt an ethical obligation to leave myself out of my films.
And then later –
A person’s pattern of ethical thinking is similar to muscle memory, and seems natural only because it’s so often reiterated. My father’s circular self-blame scared me. In it I heard echoes of my own guilt, but whereas his had been earned through long experience, mine felt like insincere parroting of beliefs I’d picked up from him…
Toward the end, a large section of Vita’s story directly addresses guilt and shame – I loved this element of the story, particularly because the character seems to have autobiographical elements, however, I recognise that some readers will cringe at the psychotherapy slant. I saw it as necessary in terms of Vita’s understanding of her relationship to South Africa – again, another thought-provoking layer to the story (and to extend this theme further, consider that Vita has settled in Australia, where genocide of Indigenous Australians has marked recent history).
It occurred to me that I had left the country at the worst possible age, neither child nor woman, still tentative in my new friendships with the black girls at my recently desegregated school, caught up in the wave of pride in becoming poster children of tolerance and amity, but without time to normalise those relationships, to get beyond the symbolism.
4/5 Adding it to my list of predictions for the Stella.
It made me think of our very first dinner together… I had ordered a bottle of Château d’Yquem to go with the warm pear sabayon.