In the Garden of the Fugitives
A friend and I recently argued about Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey. A collection of stories about the souls of 10 animals caught up in wars of the 20th century, each of the animals also bears a relationship to a famous literary figure, such as Kerouac or Tolstoy, and often the animal has a proclivity for mimicking the author’s voice. I argued that the strength of the book was that anyone could have thought of it, but only Ceridwen Dovey could have pulled it off so well. My friend argued not only that she pulled it off so beautifully, but that it’s a miracle anyone came up with the idea at all.
Like all good arguments, nobody won. The point is, we were arguing over the specific grounds of its amazingness – the fact of its amazingness was not in question at all. Let us agree at the outset that In the Garden of the Fugitives is likewise amazing, and though it might be a little less flashy, its seriousness is also its strength. The interesting problem is figuring out what kind of novel it is – which happens to be what the reader is invited to do for most of the book.
The whole thing unfolds, with no variation, through unornamented letters that pass between someone named Royce who is turning 70 and a middle-aged woman named Vita. “Given our history, Vita, I’m aware you may decide not to read this,” Royce begins. He wants to propose a back-and-forth game of information and storytelling, explaining he’s had news of sickness and is contacting her out of nostalgia, as well as a need for absolution for some event in their shared past.
Vita is game, if healthily suspicious (“You’ve timed your last entreaty well, which I’m sure is no coincidence.”), and she considers middle-age “a good time for a stocktake of the stuff of which this self of mine is made”. They’re hooking each other – you can already see the strength of Vita’s personality in her phrasing – and by the
end of her letter, they’re hooking the reader, too. “I read your email and was reminded that you’re one of the strangest, most significant things that ever happened to me,” Vita says. While other people’s love has felt unconditional, Royce’s “came with strings attached”. In other words, we’re meeting them at the resumption of what’s obviously been some kind of power game already. What was the game? How did it stop? How might this one be different?
Rules are determined for the correspondence. They embark on structured play, with “each creature leaving its own set of prints in the sand … the two bound together only by a dim mutual awareness of death.” Both characters are hard on each other and self-critical, but also capable of admitting need – it reads like Dangerous Liaisons but less campy, more astringent.
Within the set-up, which leaves the reader wondering not just what the author is keeping from us but what these writers are keeping from each other, we learn that Vita lives in Mudgee, a town in central western New South Wales, and that Royce gets around, spending time in Death Valley, California. He’s also the founder of the Lushington Foundation, which gives fellowships to extraordinary young women to furnish their creative ambitions. Royce insists on notifying women of their success on ceremonial paper, “their names on a dappled cream card”. Alarm bells start ringing long before he describes himself as “an angel investor … but the product I buy into is the person, the mind”. For Vita, who received one of these prestigious fellowships as a student, Royce is one of those men “who like to congratulate themselves on seeing something in me that they believe nobody else can”.
Yet who Vita is – what it’s possible to see in her – is the central mystery of the novel. We witness her at age 18, arriving at a prestigious American university from distant Sydney, and then younger, at 14, when her white parents are emigrating from South Africa for “the right reasons” just as Vita and her black friends are “caught up in a wave of pride in becoming poster children of tolerance and amity”. Eventually, Vita ends up in South Africa again, taking a class on dealing with white guilt and shame with a Jung-quoting workshop leader. Royce, meanwhile, unspools in his letters the origins of the Lushington Foundation, especially his long-ago relationship with a woman named Kitty Lushington, which unfolded at a dig in Pompeii at a time when new archaeological methods were changing our relationship to artefact and memory.
For a book that feels quite plotty and driven, In the Garden of the Fugitives is abstract in subject and delivery, and while twists and revelations lie in wait for the reader, they’re doled out reasonably gently, so your understanding of the characters and the text deepens just a little bit at a time. None of it is sinister and shocking so much as tense and involving, and you leave with a sense of admiration for the book’s unpredictable range. It’s a sort of meditation on the actions that are possible or impossible at separate historical moments; on the shifting spotlight of history, what it lights up and what it doesn’t; curiosity and its limits; creative forms and their limits; the affordances of new research methods. The main threads are about gender, power and race, and what I guess you call personality – not formal psychology so much as our need to analyse ourselves and others.
With these chunky topics vying for space in a novel that sticks to its formal restrictions, not all the themes are resolved or developed. Some big ones drop off quite abruptly, leaving you to wonder how much Vita is “trapped in a frozen ethical condition” with only the illusion of movement. “I do believe that once you give yourself permission to muck around in it, there’s nothing quite so fascinating as your own past,” writes Royce. Here, it’s two characters wading through the muck and pushing each other into it. CR
Hamish Hamilton, 320pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 24, 2018 as "Ceridwen Dovey, In the Garden of the Fugitives". Subscribe here.