Every so often a writer comes along who captures the spirit of a generation in all its intensity. Joan Didion managed to do it for the 1960s with Play It as It Lays, and Helen Garner for the 70s with Monkey Grip. Now there is Rachel Trezise, a young Welsh writer who does the same for the UK in the 1990s with her surprising debut novel In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl
This semi-autobiographical account of a harrowing childhood won Trezise a place on the Orange Futures List, which names 21 promising young writers to keep an eye on. Her success continues: Fresh Apples, a collection of short stories, recently won the EDS Dylan Thomas Prize, with an award of £60,000.
Born in the Rhondda Valley in 1978, Trezise began writing In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl when she was seventeen; it was first published when she was only twenty. With this edition, a forceful talent is now introduced to Australia. Gritty, tough and raw, the novel is a dissection of working class life in the post-industrial Welsh valleys. The mines have closed; folks live on the dole and spend a lot of time at the pub.
In spare, benumbed prose, Trezise chronicles an early childhood of broken homes, child abuse and poverty. But it gets worse: at the age of eleven for a period of three years, her heroine Rebecca is repeatedly raped by her stepfather.
Silenced by fear and humiliation, Rebecca escapes her abuser only when her mother, unaware of the rapes, divorces him. The damage is already done, however, and Rebecca is catapulted into a teenage life of punk rock, drugs and casual sex. Abandoned, neglected, forced to shoplift in order to eat, Rebecca is torn between love for her mother and confused indignation. It isn’t only her own parents who have failed her, but the entire adult world. This is brought home later when the rapes become known: a trial, asserting a different version of events, brings further humiliations.
There is a battle is being waged here, and Rebecca is the battlefield. On the one side is the unfairness of life; on the other, a wounded soul trying to make sense of it. She describes herself as living in a glass coffin, “a see-through box, the inside looking out” where “nothing really mattered”. This dazed emptiness is a mask for deep psychological issues, leading her to pursue a series of unhealthy relationships, alternately obsessive and violent. She begins cutting herself, overdosing, attempting suicide. Somehow through it all, Rebecca survives.
It’s reading that first calls her back from the edge of self-destruction. The library becomes an island and books atolls of peace, places to rest from drowning. It’s writing, however, that gives her a voice.
Speaking about an abusive boyfriend, Rebecca says: “He began his one-man brainwash crusade, and slowly chiselled away my personality. Laid my soul out flat and kicked all movement out. He made me speak and tell him why I didn’t like to speak, ironed every crease in my life story.”
This is Trezise speaking through her heroine loud and clear, reclaiming what her own real-life abusers took from her. Though they attempted to silence her, lay her out flat, iron every crease, after a long struggle, Trezise has managed to wrench back her both her body and her story.
She calls In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl “the book she had to write”. For Trezise and her heroine, writing is a form of resistance against neglect, abuse and alienation. As grim and miserable as this story is, it offers hope. Rebecca begins to heal when she recognises the importance words and self-expression have for her life. Books, her dying grandmother’s stories, and her writing are what keep her fixed in the world, giving her the proper distance with which to view it and remain in it.
Trezise recognises, too, that her story serves as a point of hope for others. In the epilogue, she writes: “I am surprised at how quickly my past has dissolved, how quickly it isn’t mine anymore. And what a relief it is, to give an unwanted gift to someone who needs it more than I. And suddenly my mind holds itself together. I do not want superstardom. I am not scared. Suddenly my life is not a precocious baby’s id.”
In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl is a remarkable book. Rachel Trezise has turned the usual pattern of this type of story around. Instead of presenting her real-life experience as non-fiction, she has taken it as the raw material for art, producing a novel that is at once spirited and painfully earnest. More than anything else, she shows that the devastation of the past may be overcome.
(In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, Rachel Trezise, Text Publishing, $22.95.)
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2008.