If you’re a bookstore browser who likes reading first pages or paragraphs before buying, here’s an interesting challenge. The opening sentences from book # 1(A Mercy, the latest novel by the American author Toni Morrison): “Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark – weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more – but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth.”
And here, the opening paragraph of book #2 (Molly and the Muslim Stick. by the British/Guianese author David Dabydeen): “Once upon a time – the night of Wednesday 26th October 1933, when I was fifteen – it happened. It. It. The dripping down my thighs. Sticky, then thickening to treacle. As bloody as flesh from Leviticus.”
If you put aside the authors’ reputation and your book spending limits, the choice still seems difficult. You might wish to escape headlines of world economic woes. There’s so much chatter, so many messages streaming at you through headsets or hand-held devices. You might long deep down for a full-bodied text or voice you could trust.
Those opening lines from Molly and the Muslim Stick (2008) with its fairy tale overture, the promise of modern-day horror wrapped like sticky confection, could be the welcoming hand to lead you away.
The American writer Mark Twain once said, “What you have not lived you cannot write about.” Toni Morrison might decline a response to that; but David Dabydeen would beg to differ. His altruistic research skills have been hard at work over the years, scrutinizing oil paintings, reconstructing stages & events in imperial past history with praise-winning results: Turner, The Counting House, A Harlot’s Progress, to name a few.
This time around Molly invites you to consider the case of a woman who has been sexually abused by her father.
Amazingly she endures. She goes to college; she becomes a teacher and travels to Guiana, spreading her tale with gush and acrimony even as her behavior spirals into the obsessive right before your eyes. Or right before your ears. For Dabydeen urges you to listen to her voice, and follow her travels from abuse to compulsion as filtered through his high class-accented prose.
In Part I Molly sounds like an improbably heroic survivor. Her family history is laid out in sharp, short sequences. You feel as if you’re sitting beside her, turning the pages of the family album. Here she is evading her mother’s miscarriage (“I was snug in her womb”); and as a teenager in the local library, “reading productively – the legends of Greece and Rome, the lives of great historical figures.”
Her father, the abusive brute who once shoveled coal in Accrington, Lancashire in the 1930s, invites his pals home to get jolly with his daughter’s body (“from the age of fifteen into my twenties”). Here’s Molly again, an emblem of uncanny female forbearance: “When the pals departed, Dad would come and lie beside me, seeking the shelter of my swollen breasts, and I would listen to the drip drip drip of his guilt along my thighs”.)
[It. It… Drip drip drip. Readers are reminded to bring their own rhythmic breathing to Dabydeen’s prose. There’s the history of English Literature running softly like the Thames through all his fiction; but not much music in his British/Guianese bones he can truly call his own.]
You might anticipate harrowing developments, demons to be fought off, Molly’s young life “devastated” by all that has happened to her; plus some small hope of redemption (Molly meeting an older man who reminds her of her father, a kinder man.) But that would be so second-tiered, so third world. Dabydeen’s novel responds to a higher aesthetic calling; and that body of Molly’s manages to tidy itself and attempt a surreal resurgence of spirit.
She escapes her house of sexual helplessness; she redefines desire; and, packing as much “joie” as she can in her ravaged “vivre”, she goes off to college.
There she makes new friends, Corinne and Terrence, and attends lectures on Keats and Wordsworth. Her overridden appetite opens new folders. Terrence becomes her partner in torrid (or torrid depictions of) college sex and purging college introspection.
We learn she has a hip problem and must now walk with a stick. Her father dies. Her walking stick starts talking to her: “You’re no more than a fond and hopelessly failed woman.” Molly talks back to Stick. There are pages of ranting & disarray (locked up in a boarding house, or wandering the streets) – valuable grist, to be sure, for literary scholars in waiting.
As the narrative gathers momentum Dabydeen gets into a short-story rhythmic stride, his images moving fast, sketching and plumbing new depths in Molly’s self-devolution. Keeping pace depends on how willingly you give in to Molly’s voice which can be wearying at times with its troubled insistence; though there are discursive intervals as Molly and her friends probe the strange gelatinous substance that now owns her life.
Her doorbell rings often. People leave mysterious packages or deliver messages. Molly had talked as if her behavior were “predestined”; so when a stranger out of nowhere appears at her doorstep – a half-naked, shivering boy-man, exuding an unwashed “alchemy of aromas” – she becomes infatuated with him (“He’s harmless, poor thing, and far from home.”) and his aura of transpersonal convergence.
The stranger is from Dabydeen’s Guiana. He speaks a language that requires translation. He’s taken in, cleansed of his jungle residue and christened Om (not Adam.) After much enriched conversation it becomes apparent that the novel, which has been doing a hop, skip and jump – from Nov. 1918, through two world wars, across cultures and over memory ditches – will follow a narrative arc that takes Molly to Guiana. She arrives on the shores of Demerara in Jan. 1957.
On the surface her mission is to search for Om. She has been stirred by the “injustice of his deportation” (there are other imperatives embedded in her violated and off-centred “consciousness”.) Soon Molly’s issues are no longer prosaic, or even psychosexual. Guided by the author’s own pedagogical imperatives the novel transitions into metaphysical adventurism, its higher purpose realized in letters sent home like blog posts from a delirious English patient.
The letters describe swift passage through Georgetown; a journey to Om’s village up the Demerara river, passing through Edgar Mittelholzer’s Kaywana territory (“We left at dawn, the engine chugged and sputtered and smoked and cut off and started again”.) There among Mittelholzer’s Amerindians – in scanty loin cloth and feathered headdress, going about their river routines and unobtrusive semi-mythical lives – Molly finds moments of quietude; then moments of uncertainty, until Om appears.
Weeks of lazing in a hammock – “the women bring me food…I drink from the calabash as from a sacramental cup” – encourage wonderment about Walter Raleigh and those earlier journeymen who searched for El Dorado; dreamy observations about the jungle and its natives (the Amerindian cassava “liquor fermenting in my mind”); and “dream states”, since at this point her body’s tender history of abuse & seduction seems no longer important.
And then this invitation: Om wishes to take Molly to a Guiana waterfall. It’s a chance, since she’s travelled this far from the screwery of the past, to reconfigure her life trajectory, redeem the ‘poor thing’ of her soul. Will she come?
Aha, some readers will snap: we know where this is going: a boat crew will take her deep into Wilson Harris’ hinterland, into Wilson Harris’ marvellous inscrutability – the Palace? exalted insight & true understanding? Well, not exactly. There is no boat crew this time. Nor is Om, the mysterious Guianese deportee, in any mood to defy the language boundaries of the novel.
When it’s all over – in a giddy swirl of finale imagery – you might think: how extraordinary! Molly and her creator working their prose off in an art house of intricate fiction: inviting you to marvel at a curious case of female self-absorption: framing issues so that you start thinking of women you know, or met once, whose lives have been singularly messy.
But Molly, for some readers, might prove too author-fondled, too scholarly indulgent a model for our seriously knocked up times.
Whether you’re enchanted or unmoved by the fevered running of Dabydeen’s prose depends. In a surreal sense that river of allusions & images always in spate through his fiction has begun to resemble a factory of allusions & images supplying his fiction. Still, you can rest assured Molly & Dabydeen, like open-collared celebrities at a conference table, would be happy to take your comments & questions.
You could say, for instance, you consider Molly and the Muslim Stick a bloody marvellous book. And that with all its subtextual moanings & heavings, the grim, incredible sex, you had a bloody marvellous, uprumptious time with it. Molly for one would be pleased to hear you say that.
Book Reviewed: Molly and the Muslim Stick: David Dabydeen: Macmillan Publishers Ltd, England: 2008: 179 pgs.