That Devil’s Madness
In the beginning of Dominique Wilson’s second novel, That Devil’s Madness, it’s 1896 and Louis de Dercou is 12 years old, the youngest son of a poor farming family in southern France. Louis’s mother has died and his father, Marius, is looking for a better life for his family. After a difficult and dangerous journey, he and Louis take up a land grant in the French colony of Algeria, in a remote valley called Aïoun Asif Mellul, to make their fortune.
Louis’s story is intertwined with that of his granddaughter, Nicolette. Here, it’s 1974. Nicolette is moving to a remote Gippsland cottage with her boyfriend, Michael, and baby, Willow. Michael was a medic in the Vietnam War and is now a recovering drug addict – or at least, that’s what he’s telling Nicolette. When tragedy strikes, Nicolette moves back to Melbourne and finds work as a photojournalist for The Herald. Soon she’s itching for a front-page assignment and to reconnect with her roots.
The madness of the title refers to war, and both Louis and Nicolette meet its horrors in a number of ways. Louis finds himself fighting in World War I, though much of the narrative tension is removed because we already know he survives to know Nicolette, his granddaughter. Nicolette pays a price for Michael’s Vietnam experience, but the core of the novel is about Algeria and its war of independence and ongoing civil war. Louis and Nicolette were among the 900,000 people of European descent who fled Algeria in the early ’60s, but they both left behind people they loved. Louis grew up with Imez, a Tuareg boy about his own age, and when Nicolette left for Australia she farewelled her two best friends, Jamilah and Rafiq, Imez’s grandchildren.
That Devil’s Madness is rich in description, detail and setting. It’s either the work of someone with tremendous personal experience of Algeria and the horrors of guerilla warfare or it’s evidence of close and impeccable research by an author committed to the visceral. This is where the novel excels: it’s an immersion into a little-known part of the world, with painterly, vivid prose.
Here, Nicolette goes to the market:
“...past the silver souks where heavy necklaces, earrings and bracelets glinted, many decorated with the hand of Fatima, or fish, or geometrical shapes to ward off the evil eye or to ensure fertility … avoiding peddlers, shoppers haggling, water sellers with their chests covered in brass cups.”
And there’s a tremendous amount of heart here. The Tuareg people, their culture and the pressure of colonisation on their traditional nomadic lifestyle are sensitively handled. Wilson confronts the graphic realities of war with grit and bravery.
Good intentions, though, count for little in fiction writing. Regrettably, most of the characters remain flat clichés, from Michael, Nicolette’s Vietnam vet boyfriend, who would “fall into a dark mire that not even Willow’s hugs and giggles could pull him out of, and sometimes he’d end up disappearing for days”, to Steven, a grizzled war correspondent Nicolette teams up with, whose “hair was just a fraction too long, and his beard had a hint of grey, but what intimidated Nicolette most was the aura of supreme confidence that surrounded him…”
Important plot points, also, are problematic. Louis and his father are immediately and warmly welcomed by the local people, who bring them food and work for them and understand that they are good and just people, despite their experience with other French settlers and the unrest that surely must have been building. Nicolette’s editor pays for a junior photojournalist to fly to North Africa for a story on a possible political transition because the president is dying in a country unknown to most Australians. Perhaps both these things could happen in reality but fiction is less about accuracy than believability. These leaden people are difficult to believe.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the character of Nicolette herself. Interesting things happen to her, but she’s not interesting in herself. Her thoughts and feelings, though described at length, are too shallow to allow for genuine reader engagement and she’s clueless beyond the point of wide-eyed innocence, which doesn’t escape the notice of other characters. She’s frequently told variations of “ Use your brain, girl” and “Keep your mouth shut and don’t ask any questions”, but does neither because she’s a device in order for other characters to have an excuse for slabs of exposition. This gives the novel a didactic tone. At one point, she asks Steven: “Do you think Jamilah’s people will ever be free?”
“Dunno, Nicky. Oppression’s a funny thing. People always see the oppressors as bastards – and I guess most of them are, if you look at it from the point of view of them grabbing land, or minerals or whatever, and all the violence that goes with it; although some of them genuinely thought they were doing good – think of the missionaries…”
“Look around you,” another character tells her.
“Have you noticed how few older people there are in Algeria? How many babies and children there are?”
“Hundreds of thousands killed during the war. And after independence, thousands more. The harkis, of course, because they’d fought for France. But also anyone who’d associated with the French. Not just the men, but entire families – even their children.”
It’s not just the dialogue that is heavy with exposition. There’s no room for subtlety or subtext when chunks of narrative explain everyone’s thoughts and actions.
The complexity of the relationship between the coloniser and the colonised should make for terrific fiction, and Algeria is a fascinating place to set both historical and contemporary stories. Wilson, though, doesn’t feel like a writer who can balance her feelings of despair at these events with an intellectual interest, and her desperation to emotionally persuade weighs down That Devil’s Madness. “What a fool she’d been. A blind, stupid fool,” Nicolette finally thinks to herself. Wilson is no fool, but perhaps if she laboured less about the weight of historical tragedy she’s describing, she’d allow her readers to feel it more. LS
Transit Lounge, 352pp, $29.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2016 as "Dominique Wilson, That Devil’s Madness". Subscribe here.