Vivian is a cosmopolitan Taiwanese-American tourist who often escapes her busy life in London through adventure and travel. Johnny is a 15-year-old Irish teenager, living a neglected life on the margins of society.
On a bright spring afternoon in West Belfast, their paths collide during a horrifying act of violence.
In the aftermath, each is forced to confront the chain of events that led to the attack.
Inspired by true events, this is a story of the dark chapters and chance encounters that can irrevocably determine the shape of our lives.
‘Dark Chapter’ isn’t an easy read. It details the brutal rape of Vivian by young traveller Johnny and the aftermath of that attack, including the trial. It is honest and vivid and brave, especially as the novel is based on the author’s own experience.
The story is told from two points of view, Vivian’s and Johnny’s. This makes for a difficult read at times. Johnny has few chances in life, he is brutalised and uncared for. Seeing Vivian, (whose own sections draw us into her life, who has our sympathy, our concern), from Johnny’s point of view is challenging, uncomfortable, horrible to read. I was pleased that the novel was unflinching though – Johnny has dehumanised women, his attitude borne of what he sees around him (his father’s treatment of his mother, his brother’s attitude to girls, the pornography he’s watched) and it’s shocking that he has no real remorse.
This is not just about the rape itself. It’s about the aftermath and what that does to both survivor and perpetrator. It’s about how the effects of this horrible crime last and exactly what they can do. It’s about the horrible processes involved afterwards, the endless recounting by Vivian to this expert and that doctor, this psychologist, that friend, of what has happened. It’s about the dreadful way she’s treated in court. But it’s also about her inner strength and her determination.
And it’s about Johnny, and how a young boy can become so full of anger, of hate, of violence that he can treat another human being like this.
I can’t imagine where Winnie M. Li found the strength to write this novel. But she has, and she’s written it with enormous skill. The shifts in point of view are seamless. Vivian is three-dimensional, complex and relatable. Johnny is the bad guy, undoubtedly, but he too is complex and uncomfortably compelling to read. This isn’t sentimental or melodramatic. It’s gripping, unsettling and difficult.
And in the end it’s about Vivian’s survival, and her humanity.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC I received in exchange for an honest review.