Westby-Nunn’s debut a crafty, strange, satisfying work

SECOND-TAKE REVIEW: Following SLiPnet’s September evaluation of Westby-Nunn’s novel, Jonathan Amid takes another look at The Sea of Wise Insects.

The Sea of Wise Insects by Terry Westby-Nunn, Jacana, Johannesburg, 2011.

Alice Wolfe is scarred – physically, emotionally, and psychically. She has 329 stitches; “cursed by fate”, and she wears her scars as gruesome medals of hope. The “ill-fated” Alice sees herself as one who “draws a dark little world of scars around her”, her skin “a parchment of tales”. She has “always been unlucky”. From a young age, Alice believes herself to be “cursed by mysterious things, invisible things”.

Let me quote the novel’s introductory paragraph in order to provide a sense of the extraordinarily chromatic sensibilities, the beautiful brutality that the filmmaker Westby-Nunn brings to her creative writing:

This is my first memory: I am running towards several geese on the edges of the lake. It’s late afternoon and sun splinters through the trees, throwing tiny fragments onto the dark mud. In my left hand I have a chunk of bread, damp from my eager palms. The geese, upset by my untamed enthusiasm, lurch strangely towards me, nipping, squawking their weird, wide eyes almost evil with intent. It’s like a film fragment, that memory. I wonder how much of it I have embellished over the years, how much of it really was that clear.

On the night of her thirtieth birthday, Alice is involved in a car accident that fatally wounds her sister-in-law Veronica. Consider the following description of the fatal car accident, setting the scene for a twisty descent into the abyss of memory, disillusionment and grief:

There is a tree, or rather lots of them, the skidding, the potent slow moment before we hit it, the car swings. For the moment I think we are safe, my body pops with adrenaline, Veronica laughs. As she laughs – a sharp lunge, enormous, greedy, crushing. And then her body on the bonnet, the smashed windscreen beneath her. The headlights in this macabre, bleak landscape.

The novel switches smartly between past and present, nightmarishly blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. Its two narrative threads alternate smoothly: between present-day Cape Town, in which Alice must come to terms with her dysfunctional family; Veronica’s death; her decision to take the blame for her drug-addicted brother who was driving at the time of the accident; and the grungy London of a past life where Alice worked as a housekeeper at the Hotel Tisca, meeting the entomologist and writer Ralph.

Socrates’ aphorism that “the unexamined life is not worth living” is one that is writ large here, something which Alice takes to heart. Rather than being another cog in the machine of South Africa’s crime-fiction factory, the novel gains distinction through its distinctly philosophical and existential dimensions. Rather than being solely about the investigation of a crime, the novel is interested, among other things, in asking: What is a crime? What defines us if not our memories, and how do we unshackle ourselves from the heavy burdens of guilt and self-loathing?

Over the course of a dense 318 pages, Westby-Nunn sutures the reader into a circular narrative where before and after, beginning and end, are constantly under erasure. Alice’s dysfunctional family are an odd bunch: Her father is an “offbeat, wandering rebel” once married to a “perfectionist” wife, and her brother Andrew, “Mr Avoidance”, is a cocaine addict with whom she wages a “twisted little war”. Alice’s sister-in-law Veronica is a frighteningly vapid, stick-insect socialite, the “daughter of my mother’s dream”, “the self that had eluded me”.

If Alice is a wreck after Veronica’s death, she certainly is not without melancholia in her time spent in London. Much of the novel’s darkest moments play out here in the seedy, strange Hotel Tisca, a squalid haven for recovering amputees; this is a proposition that is never confirmed or denied – all we know for sure is that it is a “hiding place”, a “sanctuary for strangeness” where “everyone” has a “hard-luck tale”.

While working at the Tisca, the troubled Alice cannot help but fall way too hard for the aloof Ralph, who starts to seem just “too normal” to her. While the pair spend time together, Westby-Nunn offers a potential “truth” regarding Alice’s “accidents”:

Lately I’ve started to wonder if Ralph isn’t right … That somehow my father’s rebellious nature has been translated perversely into my unconscious, that my rebellion against my mother was through my hundreds of stitches; her sewn-up daughter, a perversion of herself, some sort of obscene shadow side.

Ralph refers to their relationship as them “going down the rabbit hole”. Alice supposes that their time together is “some kind of fairy story” in as much as “the past is always a fable of your own making”. The overarching impression is that Ralph “feeds” off Alice as a kind of parasite, in turn feeding her need for love and affection. This is because Alice “lived” in Ralph’s “amputated past”, “always the itchy scar where his past had once been attached to his present”. He ends up exploiting Alice’s feelings to feed his “off-kilter novel”, a “mythical book” – “a kind of psychological thriller, something very noir, gritty, where the surroundings become motifs for parts of the psyche”.

Ralph writes under the pseudonym of Walt Turnbridge, with his two main characters, Jack and Lucy, based on his own relationship with Alice. Alice is under no illusions as to the similarities between her own life and Lucy’s: “Worst of all, I don’t even like Lucy. She is a wimpy, whingeing victim. She feels so sorry for herself, it’s smothering. This bicycle tragedy, that scarring tragedy. I hate her, but the nasty truth of it is that I am her.”

As the details from Ralph’s novel start to seem all too familiar to Alice, we start to wonder what else Westby-Nunn will throw at Alice, and at us. And boy, does she keep the bleak thrills and surprises coming.

Ralph follows Alice back to South Africa. A street urchin attacks Alice close to table Mountain for her ring, and she loses her ring finger in the process. This event is an omen that indicates to Alice that something is amiss between her and Ralph. And so it is. After Ralph’s abrupt disappearance, eerily similar to her father’s exit from their family home, we return to the fact that Alice must face up to the possibility of time served in jail.

The Sea of Wise Insects is a work that grapples intensely with the intertwined forms of injury and culpability – bodily harm; emotional abuse and neglect; the quiet violence of uncertainty and fear; the inability to be at home in one’s own skin; and the unjust treatment of others. Injuries can be self-inflicted, of course, done by ourselves to ourselves, or be self-nominated. In this case, we let others harm us, we open the doors for others to cause us harm through our own behaviour.

Westby-Nunn puts Alice on the receiving end of the punitive actions of others; she is always defined, and her self-perception invariably shaped, by her relation to others, particularly men such as her absentee father, her brother, and of course Ralph. Fittingly, the passive-aggressive, socially awkward Alice’s biggest efforts in the novel centre on self-definition, a coming to terms with who and what she really is.

After Ralph and Alice break up, she finds out that he has used their time together (and much of what she told him about her family life) to write a novel, The Sea of Wise Insects. It is a critically acclaimed but grotesque, grandstanding work of “crime fiction” where the character of “Lucy” is loosely based on Alice herself. The uncertainty and apprehension Alice feels towards Ralph’s writing leads her to question the details captured in the book – how much of what is said could in fact actually be based on the truth.

The central mystery in the final third of the action revolves around Alice’s culpability in Veronica’s death and the subsequent murder trial. Alice faces time in jail after she tells the police that she was driving on that fateful night, “an insect in a jar, a creature to assess”. She notes:

I’ve begun to wonder how interested people are in the truth. In the land I live in (the land of my birth), justice isn’t important, neither is truth, the only things of substance are vengeance and guilt.

From this point on in particular, reality bends viciously out of shape. Nothing is quite as it seems, no one in Alice’s life is above suspicion, and she leaves no feeling or sensation unquestioned. Some of the novel’s most interesting passages on the question of Nature versus Nurture surface here, but to say more would rob readers of a certain pleasure.

In a novel where various fragments of memory and fabulation echo and speak to each other, Alice is the ultimate unreliable narrator: her penetrating personal perspective is all that we have to put the fractured pieces of this story together. Wonderland is, quite literally but also metaphorically, wherever Alice finds herself; that is to say, every new location she visits, both in the present and in the dank, dark recesses of her mind, shows her searching, never quite finding what she is looking for, never quite settling. Every action she undertakes holds promise, less of wonder and astonishment than of fear and pain.

To underscore Alice’s search for wholeness and understanding, Westby-Nunn uses Eugène Marais’ The Soul of the White Ant to ground her focus on the workings of human memory:

[A]ll motivated movements are dependent on what we call memory. These predetermined inherited motivated movements we call instinct. You come across this in all its original perfection in insects …

An overarching insistence on the likeness of humans to insects is made in virtually every chapter, with two examples seeing “ant-like traffic on the curve of the Nelson Mandela Boulevard”, the buildings “like giant termite mounds”, whereas the surfers Alice spots while swimming are “insects floating on the waves”.

If Westby-Nunn holds up to us that “[b]lood is thicker than water, the clichéd old saying floats up, slick oil on water”, the novel is very much about dealing with what “floats up” on the surface after extensive repression; about blocking out the “blackness” too traumatic to confront directly. Alice’s memories act as both lens and filter: they capture particular events, moments and experiences, and they arrest the evanescence of these impressions, but they cannot escape from the very subjectivity and partiality that defines memory itself. As Alice herself so succinctly puts it, “memory is so seductively selective”. She ends up asking: “For what are we if we aren’t our memories? Isn’t that really all we are?”

On the level of consistency and texture, Westby-Nunn floods her “sea” of text with minute details. The novel’s signal strength, the foundation upon which every riff is built, is its startling imagery – stark, defamiliarising, brutal, sensual, and often sublime. The end-result of such perspicacious descriptions is a novel cinematic in its visual immediacy. Many descriptions are so vivid that they leap off the page, as if going straight for the reader’s jugular.

Conversely, the jagged pacing of this debut novel is arguably its biggest drawback. Perhaps more so than simply being uneven, the device of having the narration of the present constantly undercut by fragments (often whole chapters) from Ralph’s novel-within-a-novel destabilises any sense of continuity or stability for the reader.

Certainly, in a novel trying to make the point that life is an unstable, malleable narrative, this is perhaps at best understandable on a thematic level, but formally, this mise en abyme tends to undercut the novel’s narrative tension. There are moments when one simply wants to skip ahead in the hope of finding some form of (endlessly deferred) illumination to clarify all the gloom and obscurity one encounters.

Just as it “suits” Alice to have “had a dog called Pluto: Walt Disney, the underworld and a tiny, distant planet” (34), The Sea of Wise Insects wears its unashamed eclecticism, its boundary-crossing formal and generic qualities, on its sleeve. There are, unfortunately, moments where Westby-Nunn’s penchant for intertextual significance comes across as too obvious and somewhat hackneyed, out of kilter with rest of the text: “I remember [my mother’s] wardrobe – most significantly, her tightly folded underwear – very Freudian, no doubt. And then there were her dazzling red shoes – almost Dorothy shoes from The Wizard of Oz” (62). For better or worse, Freud’s shadow visits much of the novel’s psychic economy.

Interiority is the order of the day, all day, and Westby-Nunn’s approach has a paradoxical effect: The more we get to know how Alice’s mind works and what makes her tick, the more we are forced to carefully scrutinise what she tells us, and wonder what she might be excluding. This draws us in to empathise with her, but ironically also keeps us at a distance, in tandem with the relentless waves of rhetorical questions that come crashing down. One often wishes Westby-Nunn would just get on with her (fascinating) story, and quit straining for effect.

Without revealing the novel’s startling climax, Alice is “set free” in a certain way by Adele, a “doctor of magical thinking”, after her hearing in “a graveyard of dreams”, “some kind of absurdist courtroom”. The novel is not without wry gallows humour – some of its passages are genuinely funny in a disturbing kind of way. The fact that Alice ends up working at Maudlin and Associates is a telling example of the book’s caustic humour.

The Sea of Wise Insects is elevated from merely being interesting to being remarkable by Westby-Nunn’s decision to use epigraphs from well-known works of naturalism and biology to preface each chapter. We read how “[f]ull investigations have been made into the extraordinary way some insects can remain alive and even active when such apparently vital parts of the body as the head have been removed” (from L. Hugh Newman’s Man and Insects), and get to sample further insights from the work of Eugène Marais. There are also a few choice dictums on offer, including one by surrealist painter Salvador Dali, and this gem from Emile Cioran: “What would be left of our tragedies if an insect were to present us his?” Marvellous choices all round.

Westby-Nunn cites Marais repeatedly, but perhaps the following aphorism is ultimately most revealing when recounted as a kind of injunction or hermeneutic code to prospective readers:

Things always seem pretty hopeless in the beginning when we are dealing with phenomena which lie far beyond our senses, but “perseverance pays” must be the motto of the traveller along these dark and unknown footpaths.

With its self-conscious study of story-craft, The Sea of Wise Insects ultimately reads as an idiosyncratic South African gothic novel; it encompasses the stories we tell ourselves in order to make sense of the cards life deals out to us. The novel serves as a timely reminder of an assertion once made by Michel de Montaigne, that “[n]othing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it”. Reading Westby-Nunn’s debut is a haunting, rewarding experience that few will forget.