Critical perspective

Dawson’s first two novels, Trick of the Light (1996) and Magpie (1998) each feature a young woman who is learning (somewhat painfully) to attain inner strength and independence while adjusting to a new environment and dealing with a young child. Nonetheless, despite this common thread, the respective stories and personalities of Rita and Lily are remarkably different. Trick of the Light is a vivid and moving story of domestic abuse, in which Dawson subtly and compassionately explores the complex emotions and issues involved. Rita, her American partner Mick and their young daughter Frances leave their run-down home in London’s East End and move to the American wilderness – a log cabin in a remote part of Washington State, with no electricity or running water. Rita adjusts to this alien environment, but her real fear is her partner’s violence, which seems all the more dramatic in an isolated place. Dawson offers a complex depiction of characters and events: Rita is not a ‘poor victim’, but a strong and resourceful woman, while Mick, though his behaviour is never condoned, is shown to be struggling with the effects of his own childhood. More pointedly, Rita also experiences glimpses of anger and violent feelings towards her own child – this is something that terrifies her and leaves her ridden with guilt – and this demonstrates the way in which the cycle of abuse can repeat itself. Thus Dawson’s poignant story and multi-layered and sympathetic characters avoid offering a simplistic picture of violence and abuse.

In Magpie, Lily and her five-year-old son Matthew leave Yorkshire for London, arriving at night with very few belongings and a mysterious past (which is gradually revealed). Although Lily’s inner-city London home is a far cry from the wilderness of Washington State depicted in Trick of the Light, in both (and subsequent) novels Dawson has been acclaimed for her sensitive and vivid evocation of place – whether the setting is mountains or run-down council estates, her elegant and sensual prose creates compelling and detailed images, along with poignant characters whose stories are mesmerising. Lily struggles with loneliness, the burden of her past, and a son whose strange behaviour is based on that of Dawson’s own son, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Nonetheless, Lily is also thrilled to be starting a new adventure and learning to face life’s challenges on her own.

Fred and Edie (2000) is the first of several novels in which Dawson creates a fictionalised work out of a true story, based on meticulous research but brought to life with imaginat ive detail. Fred and Edie is based on the 1922 Thompson and Bywaters murder trial: Edith Thompson and her lover Frederick Bywaters were convicted and hanged for the murder of Edith’s abusive husband, Percy. The murder was carried out by Fred, with Edie convicted as a co-conspirator, but Dawson felt strongly that Edie was a victim of the times: the high-profile publicity branded her as a predatory “New Woman”, strong-minded, independent and guilty of adultery. Many people therefore believe that Edie was convicted on moral grounds, rather than being guilty of any crime.

Fred and Edie is therefore a sympathetic, though not sentimental, version of Edie’s story, through a 21st-century perspective which emphasises her predicament: she felt obliged to marry for practical reasons rather than love, found herself trapped in a violent situation, and was legally unable to divorce Percy. It is an epistolary novel, mainly comprising of fictionalised versions of Edie’s letters to Fred while in jail, with a few extracts from the real letters and contemporary news stories. Dawson’s eloquent and often metaphorical language shows Edie to be intelligent and insightful, as she looks back on her love affair with Fred and the brief glimpse of happiness it brought her. Dawson’s version of this tragic story is haunting and compelling, particularly as Edie realises the terrible fate that awaits her.

Wild Boy (2003) is another ‘documentary novel’ which combines historical events with modern-day concerns. The true story is that of the ‘Wild Boy of Aveyron’, a 12-year-old boy, later named Victor, who was found living wild in the forests of 19th-century France, during the era in which Rousseau’s ideas on nature-versus-nurture were coming to the fore and subject to intense debate. Victor was placed under the education of Dr Itard, a well-intentioned but emotionally stunted man who determined to prove that ‘Man is only what he is made to be’, and thus believed that he could mould Victor into a civilised young man. His ‘experiment’ was a spectacular failure: Victor made little progress, and he is now believed to be the first documented case of autism. It is here that the story overlaps with modern issues: as a mother of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome (a type of autism), Dawson here expands on the topic she had first touched upon in Magpie.

Once again, Dawson’s story is multi-layered, complex yet subtle. It is presented in three shifting viewpoints: Dr Itard; Madame Guerin, the matron who cares for Victor’s day-to-day needs; and a third voice who offers Victor’s point of view. Dawson brings a fresh, imaginative approach to this well-known story and, like all her documentary novels, Wild Boy succeeds both as a creative work of fiction and as a piece of social history. Her depiction of Victor’s inner life is poignant and moving, as he fails to respond to Itard’s education of him and remains locked in his own world. Meanwhile, the characters of Itard and Guerin contrast each other strikingly. Itard’s intellectual approach, inability to form relationships and obsession with detail suggests that he may himself be a sufferer of Asperger’s, while Guerin, whose own son died at the age of two, offers Victor the emotional and practical care he needs: down-to-earth, tough but warm-hearted, she sees Victor not as an experiment but as a ‘sad boy’ who needs her care. Despite Victor’s uncommunicativeness, both his carers come to love him, and both are enriched by their experiences with him.

Watch Me Disappear (2003) is the first of Dawson’s documentary novels to have a modern-day setting. Inspired by the 2002 Soham murders of schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman (Dawson herself lives close to Soham), it is a disturbing but brave exploration of young girls on the verge of adolescence and sexuality, struggling with society’s contradictory expectations of them as they are subjected to both the myth of childhood innocence and the allure of being sexualised. Through the story of Tina and her family, Watch me Disappear skilfully and subtly evokes the sinister darkness that can lurk beneath ordinary life, in both domestic situations and the wider social sphere. Tina, a British woman from the Fens who now lives in the US with her husband and daughter, returns to her childhood home for a family wedding. Posters about two missing girls bring back horrific memories of Tina’s childhood friend, Mandy, who disappeared 30 years ago at the age of 10. As Tina experiences flashbacks of the memories she had repressed, Dawson’s skilfulness in evoking place and character creates a detailed and poignant depiction of 1970s’ life and the friendship between these two young girls, and the subsequent trauma that Tina’s mother never allowed her to talk about. The novel’s most chilling element, however, is Tina’s gradual and horrifying realisation that her own father – who has since committed suicide – may have been involved in Mandy’s disappearance. Watch Me Disappear offers more questions than answers, as Tina learns to accept that she must live with her hazy, unclear memories and lack of certainty and closure.

The Great Lover (2009) is an ambitious work, based on the life of the poet Rupert Brooke, particularly the period leading up to his nervous breakdown. Dawson’s metaphorical prose creates a rich, sensual portrait of Brooke and his pre-war life in Cambridge and later in Tahiti. Dawson has emphasised that this is a novel, not a biography, but once again she has based her imaginative fiction on detailed research, and she suggests the complex personality behind the public image. Brooke, described by W.B. Yeats as ‘the most handsome man in EnglandE2, was adored and worshipped throughout his short life (by men and women), and after his death in World War I he was glorified as a patriotic English hero. Dawson, however, peels away the layers to present a young man who was deeply troubled. The title, taken from Brooke’s poem, ‘The Great Lover’, is somewhat ironic: Brooke experimented with both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, but never found satisfaction. Dawson perceptively explores the burden of being worshipped, as her character voices his (albeit egotistical) desire to escape: ‘There is something, so choking, so suffocating, about being adored. The oxygen of indifference is what I need.’

The depiction of Brooke is balanced and augmented by the presence of Nell, an entirely fictional character. Nell, a teenage maid in Brooke’s Cambridgeshire lodgings, is infatuated by the poet, who is equally attracted to her (though ultimately he ‘loves her and leaves her’ when his breakdown drives him to Tahiti). Nell’s grounded, down-to-earth nature contrasts with the self-absorption and emotional turmoil of Brooke, in much the same way that Madame Guerin contrasts with Dr Itard in The Wild Boy. All in all, this is a seductive and poignant work, and, like all Dawson’s documentary novels, it intertwines fact and fiction with seeming ease.

Elizabeth O’Reilly, 2009