December 15, 2007
Jennifer Clement: The Poison that Fascinates
Here is a rare triple: a book (a) with a beautiful cover (imagine the title and butterflies below in sparkling gold), which (b) I got the chance to read before its release on 17 January 2008, and (c) is a mesmerising and memorable read from an interesting new voice. Well, new to me anyway, as Clement is a poet, as well as the author of a memoir and a previous novel whose title, A True Story Based on Lies, had caused me to pick it up once or twice in the bookshop. Next time I do, it will be for good.
Meanwhile, The Poison that Fascinates has the mysterious, elliptical feel of a novel in translation, without ever succumbing to gaudy exoticism in its depictions of Mexico (where Clement lives). Instead, what we get is a laconic precision which generally avoids the purpleness that can characterise a poet’s prose (“In the rainy season the city becomes molten, streets turn into rivers that carry plastics, newspapers, dry willow leaves and small shards of volcanic glass”).
It is a book of disappearances: of murder victims, of the past, and of innocence. Emily Neale is “half an orphan” whose mother went missing when she was a child. This gives her both connection to and distance from the children in the Rosa of Lima Orphanage in Mexico City, which was set up by Emily’s grandmother. (“The orphans are permanently mystified by the fact that Emily does not have a mother but does have a father. They think she is half of what they are. They act as if being left with one parent were somehow impossible”). The orphanage is now run by Mother Agata, who reminded me of the gargantuan Dog Woman in Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry:
Mother Agata is an enormous woman. Her hands are so large that she can carry most things in one hand. Dressed in her nun’s habit she looks like a colossal angel that people stand beside for shade or shelter. Children want to climb up the trunk, limb and branch of her body.
The language is Wintersonian too, with its compact fluency and occasional over-reaching – but too much ambition is better than none. The Poison that Fascinates also revels in representations of womanhood: from the compassionate altruism of the mother to the far extreme of the murderess. Emily keeps notes on female murderers, an account of a different one ending each chapter. These portraits of dissociation produce some of the richest and strangest writing in the book (“She felt her eyes were inside her mouth; her nails were growing backward into her hands; a monkey bit her face; her feet were run over by a train; she heard piano music in her arms”) and each one comes at its subject from a fresh angle.
The murderesses are one of Emily’s obsessions, along with details of saints and unusual facts. It takes the arrival of her cousin Santiago to break her out of this controlled world:
I just can’t believe it when I meet someone who is so controlled by society’s rules and expectations. You know all about facts. You know all about other people’s lives and even the lives of saints. But what about your life, Emily? Have you ever done anything unexpected?
Santiago’s appearance in Emily’s life will have consequences that, as the blurb promises, change her life forever, and which ultimately bring together the disparate elements of the story. The title is from Mexican composer Agustin Lara: “Woman, divine woman, / you have the poison that fascinates in your eyes,” and complements the various angles which the book takes on cultural roles and expectations of women. It becomes a fascinating puzzle of a novel, reverberating around the brain and impossible to get out of your head.