Author: Winnie M. Li
Publisher: Legend Press
Release Date: June 2017
Inspired by author Winnie M. Li’s own sexual assault in 2008, Dark Chapter recounts the story of Vivian, a cosmopolitan Taiwanese-American tourist with a penchant for travel. On a bright spring afternoon in West Belfast Vivian crosses paths with Johnny, a cocky 15-year-old Irish teenager, who lives with his belligerent father and delinquent older brother on a nearby traveller site. A brutal sexual assault takes place, and the book – which is told in the alternating viewpoints of the two protagonists – examines the chain of events that led to the horrific attack.
The alternative point-of-view – courtesy of traveller Johnny – initially struck me as slightly hollow, but as the book unfolds, this second voice grows more emphatic and more convincing, and Li weaves the two starkly contrasting viewpoints together with real skill – especially during the climactic showdown in court. Li’s decision to fictionalise her own experiences in such a matter-of-fact way is a brave move, but crawling into the mind of her teenage attacker is an even bolder one. While the characterisation of Johnny does little to dispel negative stereotypes associated with traveller families, the supporting characters do offer a welcome degree of light and shade in this regard.
Given the sheer number of high-profile sexual assault allegations that emerged in 2017, Dark Chapter feels like a timely book, and also an important one. An uncomfortable read, but an impressive one nonetheless.
(Note: As regular readers of this blog have probably realised, Dark Chapter represents a change of pace from the hardboiled fiction that I usually write about. Hat-tip: it was David Nemeth’s glowing review of this book over at Unlawful Acts that convinced me to seek out a copy.)
Review by Tom Leins