Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan

This may seem like a strange way to begin a review of Acts of Desperation, which in broad terms is about a woman’s account of her obsessive relationship with an abusive man, but I’m currently taken by an article by Maria Tumarkin, ‘This Narrated Life’ in the Griffith Review, which outlines her suspicion of turning all experiences into stories. She’s talking about the danger of turning experience into the typical arc that brings personal development because of the enforced omissions and elisions the form requires. She’s talking about the danger of repeating difficult stories that remain, regardless, unlistened to.

One of the things that Megan Nolan does so well, is to avoid the clichés of speaking her trauma. I know this is a novel, but the character is definitely someone who sits very neatly in this arc of personal development and yet very early on Nolan writes: 

‘Events that were objectively worse than what was to follow with Ciaran had taken place in my earlier adulthood, sordid checkpoints of the wounded woman. I cannot speak about these things too soon because their names alone summon like a charm the disinterest of an enlightened reader. Female suffering is cheap and is used cheaply by dishonest women who are looking only for attention – and of all our cardinal sins, seeking attention must surely be up there.’ 

She writes with a vividly awake sense of what it means to be a woman whose past contains stories of victimhood. Here’s another fabulous quote:

‘Mediating your own victimhood is just part of being a woman. Using it or denying it, hating it or loving it, and all of these at once. Being a victim is boring for everyone involved. It is boring for me to present myself through experiences which are instrumentalised constantly as narrative devices in soap operas and tabloids.

Is this why I am so ashamed of talking about certain events, or find them interesting? This is part of the horror of being hurt generically. Your experiences are so common that they become impossible to speak about in an interesting way.’ 

The novel has a depth that I’m not convinced the marketing team is aware of. The cover of this book (see above) has a woman’s face appearing through the outline of an apple, reducing women and the narrator, once again, to victim or temptress, to that naughtly little Eve who perpetrated mankind’s original sin. Acts of Desperation is a much more interesting narrative that attempts to move away from and challenge that dichotomy. 

Though the language isn’t always as visceral as I’d like, there is a delight in reading eloquently described emotions and experiences that are so broadly recognisable to the female experience. There are two really stand out moments for me in this novel. The first is when the narrator is standing at the sink making dinner.

‘It’s a peculiar anger, resenting doing something that nobody asked you to do. And it’s a peculiarly impotent sort of anger that domestic labour brings about. It was building up in me, a feeling like the blood of my body slowly becoming dirty as it coursed through.

With every strip shorn off the potato I cursed him and the apartment, even though as I did so I knew it was I who had begged – quite literally at times, had begged on my knees – for the privilege of living in this place with him, in this exact manner. It was I who had been so anxious for domesticity, for the reassuring sameness of our shared routine, for the comfort of knowing that it was me he slept with every night.’

The second is about how hard it is to say no. I could have quoted quite a large amount on this, so the ellipses represent some large gaps in the text.

‘I thought, not for the first time, that wheedling of the sort he had employed should be forbidden in men. It was already so near to impossible to say no to a man, so difficult to accept the possibility of being hurt or disliked or shouted at. It takes so much out of you to make yourself say no when you have been taught to say yes, to be accommodating, to make men happy.

Once you’ve said no, a man wheedling feels unbearable. Even if he does it politely, or gently, it overrides the clearly expressed intention. It says: Your choice does not really matter. What I desire matters, and I don’t want to feel bad for forcing you into it. So perhaps you ought to reconsider?

Wheedling is cowardly, and violent. When you change someone’s no to yes by wheedling, you have stolen from them what does not belong to you.

It was the last thing I wanted to do, and I did it.

… When I sleep with men I don’t like, men who irritate or scare or disgust me, because it is easier to do so, I make myself as bad as they are. … I hate them less afterwards, because I’ve made myself as pathetic as they are.’

There is little point in telling the plot of the story. It is a familiar one. What’s interesting about this book is the way that it approaches these experiences as narrative devices that have been exploited so many times. Hence my many quotations above. It’s great that Acts of Desperation makes the reader think about how and why certain stories are told, about what it means to speak of the peculiarities of being a woman in a patriarchal society. Sometimes it does feel whingey, sometimes it does feel exhausting, but it is also astute and page-turning. It’s drawing attention to some interesting complexities at the heart of turning difficult experience into narrative and it does it in a way that will grip the reader.

I recommend reading the book and the article together and having a think about what we want story to do for us, about the ways we use it and how that might enhance as well as detract from the way we shape ourselves and our future world.

I’ll be reviewing We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan next.