Storm and Grace
Kathryn Heyman’s Storm and Grace is essentially a novel about domestic violence, though you will find only veiled references to this subject in the recommendations on the book’s cover, which emphasise – somewhat disturbingly – the novel’s darkness and sexiness, and its exploration of the intimate link between love and death. This is disappointing, particularly in the light of what this ambitious and impressive book sets out to achieve. Storm and Grace is the story of a passionate and violent relationship, but it is also an original and compelling critique of what one of the characters bluntly describes as “all that Fifty Shades shit”.
Heyman’s novel follows the seduction of a young marine biology student, Grace Cain, by an older man and international legend in free diving, Storm Hisray. Storm is known as “the deepest man in the world” because he holds the world record for diving without oxygen, but the moniker also suggests something of his monumental narcissism and penchant for self-mythologising. Storm is an expert at seducing media and sponsors for his livelihood. When Grace accepts an unpaid assignment to interview him for a student diving magazine, she doesn’t stand a chance.
Repeating timeworn gender stereotypes, Storm insists that Grace is the “siren” and “goddess” who seduces him. However, Storm is the seductive legend of this romance. When Grace looks at a magazine cover picture of him, she sees “Blue eyes lasering into the lens. Muscles rising across his torso created a desert dunescape, each tawny curve a burning ascent.” The image is schmaltzy Mills & Boon, but Grace has one of “those moments when searchers look into the Bible or the Koran, seeking meaning, seeking God”. It turns out that Storm is a jealous god, and soon Grace finds herself on an island in Fiji, isolated from everyone she has ever known.
The narrative puts Grace’s God-complex into context. She has missed the love of a powerful man since her father died when she was a girl, and she finds herself pathologically attracted to the childlike role of neediness and obedience demanded by Storm. The novel is deeply critical of the culture that seduces women into playing such self-destructive roles. Grace, validated by a famous man, feels like “the star of the movie”. However, when a film is made about their relationship at the story’s end, its romantic distortions are nothing short of obscene.
Heyman’s novel also offers an alternative cultural history, grounded in ancient myths of not only female victimhood but also, strikingly, female vengeance. Grace’s relationship with Storm is explicitly represented in relation to the Inuit myth of Sedna. Sedna is a daughter unhappily given away by her father in marriage to a bird spirit, who imprisons her on his island. Sedna ends up dead at the bottom of the sea, but time transforms her into a powerful and angry goddess of the deep.
Storm and Grace also cleverly evokes the ancient Greek tragedy Medea, another seafaring story, in which the heroine, having sacrificed her life to help her husband in his quest for greatness, is betrayed by him. Indeed, Heyman’s novel creatively mirrors some key plot points of Euripides’s play, such as Medea’s isolation from her family and her betrayal of her brother, rendered as a brother figure in Heyman’s narrative. Medea, of course, notoriously achieves revenge on her husband by killing their children.
Heyman also quotes lines delivered by the chorus in Euripides’s tragedy. The chorus in Greek theatre was an ancient device akin to omniscient narration that introduced and commented on the action of a play, and provided a way for the playwright to speak directly to and even to instruct the audience. Heyman uses this narrative device to inspired and devastating effect. She tells the story of Storm and Grace through a chorus of women, who intermittently interrupt the narrative to offer context or guidance to the reader. The chorus of ancient Greek theatre was anonymous, but the identities of Heyman’s narrators, while “unspoken and unspeakable”, are female. They also reveal themselves, notably, as the victims of stories of romance – and the victims of domestic violence.
These women confess how they themselves “have basked in the applause of a full restaurant while he went down on one knee, violinist playing, and told us how special, how dazzling, how perfect we were”. They understand the lure of romance: “We’ve read the books, we’ve seen the films, we know the songs.” However, they have also “been thrown from balconies ... held under water, felt pillows shoved against our faces”. Despite their horrific experiences, as they observe Grace falling for Storm, they admit: “…we can barely help ourselves. Watching, we sway along, we sing along, we applaud the first kiss when it comes.”
These women not only bear witness to Grace’s life but also attempt to warn her, albeit in ghostly ways, appearing in shadows and shapes on the ocean, for instance. They also act to caution the reader, who is not allowed to surrender, despite the thrall of the dramatic plot – enhanced by Heyman’s often mesmerising prose – to an unreflective experience of this supposed “love story”.
Heyman’s merging of the ancient genres of tragedy and romance through the device of the chorus is an original aesthetic strategy and a powerful feminist statement. In fact, this novel shows how aesthetic ambition and a political agenda can be simultaneously realised. The murdered and formidable narrators of the chorus also make Storm and Grace an exciting contribution to the feminist ghost story, as exemplified by Ali Smith’s 2001 novel Hotel World, as well as to the feminist revenge fantasy, as seen in Catherine Breillat’s 1999 French film Romance.
Indeed, like Breillat’s Romance, Storm and Grace is at once romance and anti-romance, a melodrama and a parody, a story that seduces you and a story that shocks you into critical thinking. It is the kind of feminist work about domestic violence that Australian literary culture might have hoped for. KN
Allen & Unwin, 360pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 11, 2017 as "Kathryn Heyman, Storm and Grace". Subscribe here.