So why review a book that came out two years ago; a book that was reviewed―with exemplary accolades, and a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly―by any number of excellent publications and individuals; a book that won the Ditmar, Australian Shadows, and Canberra Critics Awards, and was shortlisted for the Aurealis?
First, because if you haven’t read it yet, you absolutely should; and we’ll talk about why. But also, and more importantly, because I’ve yet to see a review do proper justice to what truly fuels the dark heart of Slights; what powers the midnight core of what is one of the most sickening, engrossing, brutally honest character and social studies published in the past several years. The Publisher’s Weekly review leaned in the right direction, approaching the main character, Stevie, as “more the center of consciousness than the protagonist”, but didn’t look deeply enough at the structure of the work itself to get at what the novel has to say.
Slights is so often dismissed or pigeonholed as morbid horror, psychological study, and a potent murder story/buried family secrets thriller. And while Slights is possessed of all those elements, they are tangential components, not the core of the book.
And that is because what Kaaron Warren did with Slights was not simply craft an exquisitely wrought first novel―though it was, and is, that. At its basest level, Slights isn’t even technically a novel at all. It possesses the rudimentary elements of narrative in its plot, characters, and the unfolding of events, even as those events unfold, both in terms of past and present action, as a bildungsroman (though, interestingly, here, it is the much overlooked subtext of the term concerning the “spiritual education of the protagonist”, rather than the more readily bandied use of the “unfolding of a character’s early life” that properly applies). But, instead, Slights is a passion play.
Reading the work as novel is only possible if one takes Slights at face value. And you can, technically, do that. You can read Slights as a moralist Freudian fable: a tale of one character’s internal world coming apart at the seams, and the resultant murders as the actions of a protagonist trying to regain control and salvage the idealized image of their equally murderous father, and who in so doing follows in that parent’s footsteps in idolatry and reverence. However, taking that approach is to give only a shallow nod to the larger framework in which the “novel” exists.
These are the basic precepts of the novel (as such): Stevie is a sociopath; everything is informed by this central pivot; she continually dies, and is resurrected throughout the course of the novel (and, no, the Christ figure implications should not be ignored); Stevie is an individual whose “afterlife”, or at least the place where she goes when she dies (we’ll get to why it’s not technically an “afterlife” a little further on) is a dark room where those she has “slighted” torture her until she is “resurrected”, often by family members, neighbours, or transient roommates; Stevie’s internal world is deeply disconnected from the actual world in which she moves―this divide being informed by her sociopathic inability to effect, or properly interpret, human emotion―which only leads her to do more harm with each resurrection; Stevie is her father’s daughter―both are murderers; the father, Alex, deceased by the time the novel begins, was a murderer who killed in passion and righteous indignation (a policeman punishing those untouched, or unnoticed by the law), with some inappropriately guided killings thrown in, because Alex is painted as a man ruled by his passions, who, though thorough, was as quick to make ill-informed decisions as the rest of humanity; Alex’s portrait is intriguingly sympathetic, even though we realize he is a monster.
Stevie, unlike her father, is a murderer who kills in order to learn about the torment she endures when she dies: specifically, she seeks to know if others who are as cruel, capricious, and indifferent as she is experience the same “dark room” when they die. More often than not, she fails to properly revive these individuals, not gaining the information she so desperately needs, and even when she does bring them back from the brink, they do not share her experience.
The revelations about Stevie’s father, which we gain knowledge of almost immediately in the novel, though without specifics, unfold slowly for Stevie, whose view of reality is highly distorted. It is testament to Warren’s writing that she manages to present Stevie as so wholly unable to interpret the world around her, and yet the audience still understands the truth of what is going on around Stevie, even as we watch events unfold through our narrator’s highly distorted lens.
If you were to take just the above elements, and watch Stevie spiral into ever more isolated and deplorable circumstances―largely, though not entirely, of her own making―one could label this book as a psychological thriller, or a deeply twisted murder mystery cum psychological treatise on dystopian family structure in modern Western culture. But that ignores the book’s underpinnings a little too neatly, and bypasses the far more interesting, larger context behind the “dark room”.
Slights is only in the barest sense Spec Fic Horror, and this is in large part due to one particular scene involving a séance and the manifestation of vengeful spirits. Slights is much more a novel in the darkest tradition of the Magic Realism movement, right down to that subgenre’s spiritualist roots.
The “dark room” to which Stevie retreats/is condemned―the ambivalence exists here because Stevie craves the adulation of the shadows of those she has slighted who exist in what she calls “her kingdom”; these entities who she believes thrive through her sustained focus on them, and she truly believes that they love and crave her presence, even while they destroy her, piece by piece―is in the novel not treated as psychosis, but as a literal function of life and death in a theological context.
And here is where a straight read of the novel falls apart. When Stevie dies, and/or kills herself repeatedly throughout the course of the novel, the “dark room” is an easily recognizable symbolic Hell. However, Stevie’s entire existence, influenced especially by the fact that she constantly plays out over the course of the book how things should have happened as opposed to how they actually happened, frames both her life and her death (the “dark room”) as an ongoing Purgatory: an experience of wrongs and slights delivered on all sides, and journeyed through much in the manner of an Orphean descent―if Orpheus had had no actual object in mind when he descended into the Underworld.
That distinction takes what is essentially a 500 page character study (seriously, there are no murders until about 350 pages in―it’s a character study, not a murder thriller), and transforms it into the exegesis of the central character, making Stevie the “center of consciousness” in the novel as Publisher’s Weekly rightly named her. And that exegesis is performed in a framework that uses, as its basis, a combination of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, and Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Comedia. The framework itself is so finely wrought and seamless that it is all but invisible. But that framework is also rock solid, supporting the first 350 pages of the novel’s character building and slowly unfurled history without crumbling under its own weight.
The novel takes heavily from the two works that underpin it, but manages to exist as its own beast, wandering through Purgatory with vicious abandon as Stevie figuratively tears and rends all those in her path. And the notion of Stevie’s life story as Purgatory comes to a head when, at the end of the book (skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to read spoilers), Stevie has killed herself again, and the novel descends into a panoply of torture scenarios intermingled with imagined resurrections using the recurring line “a neighbour cuts me down”, that loop and recur in cyclical fashion as Stevie experiences dreams of a new life, dies, dreams, dies, and dreams ad nauseum―all in internal space. It is only with the realization that she wants to live that there is a break in the cycle. And at the last, with that shift in the centre of Stevie’s existence, the dark room empties, and Stevie is left “alone in the cold, dark womb”. Stevie rises from the figurative bones of her tormented self, stripped bare of weighted flesh: free. And here, one would be tempted to note the seeming movement from Purgatorio to Paradiso, as in La Divina Comedia. But there is no Beatrice here to guide the audience. Though Stevie finds her redemption, and her salvation in self-forgiveness, the last few pages of the novel are a repetition―unconnected to character voice, instead presented directly to the audience―of the list of items Alex, Stevie’s father, has kept buried in the family’s backyard as a memento of his kills.
The novel’s conclusion is a not too subtle inference that even if we forgive ourselves, the damage that we do to others is irrevocable, and radiates out, touching other lives in a ripple effect. And thus, Warren brings us from a redemptive high, to a dark and earthy low―and leaves us there.
It is a fitting place to conclude a novel that charts the life of a protagonist who is cruel, deplorable, obliviously capricious, and quite literally a sociopath, and who despite all that garners our sympathy because she is a creature bound and influenced by her own worst nature, not revelling in it. Stevie is simply what she is, unable and unwilling to fight her own worst self, and often giving in to the false sanctum that is the “dark room”.
There has been much praise heaped on Slights, and all of it well-founded. Slights is an absolutely extraordinary novel, but not because it focuses on horror, or murder, or redemption, or salvation. The Book Zombie’s review almost pegged what makes this book a necessary read when they said that “[t]he horror of [Slights] is the human kind, that silently creeping sickness of the psyche that can be hiding inside of any of us.”
But one has to take it a step further. Slights doesn’t just suggest that there is the potential for this kind of cruelty or abandon in each of us. It shoves the notion that we are already enacting it on ourselves and others down our throat, and forces us to choke on that idea until we relent, only then removing its figurative hand from our nose and mouth once we have finally swallowed that bitter pill.
Have no illusions, Slights is not an easy read. It is a highly transgressive novel that wants you to both loathe and pity its protagonist―an aim at which it succeeds ably―and also identify with her as well. It shows us some very ugly things about the society in which we live: how it abandons us to fend for ourselves, and how we slight, aggrieve, and ultimately kill each other to address ills done―both real and perceived. It comes from an excessively dark place, and has a great deal to say about the emptiness of a life lived in isolation or devoid of emotion. Even rage is depicted as better than no emotion at all through the composite depictions of Alex.
I am sure there are many who started Slights and walked away thinking it too difficult, too ugly, or possibly because it was simply too close to home. Whether you never finished the book, or have yet to start it, you owe it to yourself to read it, and read it through.
You need to hear what it has to say.