Woman, divine woman,
you have the poison that fascinates in your eyes,
woman you have the perfume
of an orange tree in bloom.
- Agustin Lara
There are no real coincidences in a fable. Everything happens for a reason even if it doesn't always feel like it at the time. If Red Riding Hood doesn't go into the woods there's no story. The writing is generally precise and to the point, no red herrings, waffle or MacGuffins. The Poison that Fascinates by Jennifer Clement is a fable, a work dripping in symbolism. It builds on ancient myths (both pagan – the story of the god Quetzalcoatl is fundamental to a deeper understanding of the book – and Christian – saints are everywhere) and modern folklore, specifically the tales told about murderesses, such as Lizzie Borden, Belle Gunness, and Myra Hindley.
Our archetypical Red Riding Hood is Emily Neale, a not very typical Mexican girl of English decent. Her age is not given. She is probably about nineteen although she acts younger. But more about her later.
The Poison that Fascinates is also a mystery novel. We know whodunit, (Emily's mother, Greta, is the guilty party – she abandoned Emily when her daughter was six months old); what we don't know is why she did it. And no one can seem to get their story straight be it the woman who watched her getting into a taxi, the man who noticed her with a tall Chinese man, the old woman who saw her carrying a baby or the street sweeper who at first swore she was lifted by the police, kicking and screaming, then decided she got onto a bus and finally denied having seen her at all.
But that's not the only mystery. Someone has been in Emily's bedroom. Someone has gone through her drawers. Someone has slept in her bed. (Shades of 'Goldilocks' there.) And then a telegram arrives for her father. Her cousin Santi who she has never seen before is coming to Mexico City and he brings mysteries of his own.
Let's have a look at our dramatis personæ:
Emily Neale is the lead in our little drama, a Mexican girl whose great-grandmother immigrated to Mexico from England. She lives in Mexico City with her father where she divides her time between university studies and helping out at the Rosa of Lima orphanage which her great-grandmother founded.
Emily is a quite the factoholic. One of her favourite books growing up was The Guinness Book of World Records. She also likes to read mysteries, detective stories and tales of real life assassins. "I just want to understand," she explains, "It's interesting to me – they're stories, histories. In any case, I'm trying to find out if at heart I am a forensic scientist, a detective or a criminal . . ."
Here is the novel's first chapter in its entirety:
A List of Pages
Page 4 can be very quiet.
Page 13 can be a torn dress.
Page 34 can be the month of April in Mexico.
Page 76 can be the scent of melons.
Page 83 can be a sanctuary.
Page 100 can be a latitude 30 degrees south.
Page 108 can be a child lost in the forest.
Page 123 can be a child found in the forest.
Page 124 can be a child found in the forest who is not cold or hungry.
Page 185 can be a knife.
Emily Neale was raised on encyclopaedias and dictionaries. She likes to collect facts. She knows she can travel in an atlas and fall in love in a novel.
She knows she can kill someone in a book.
Now, you tell me that wouldn't look out of place in a Jeanette Winterson novel.
There are two main things that Emily finds of interest: saints, of all kinds (she is studying history and is doing her thesis on the lives of saints), but only one specific kind of sinner (Emily collects press cuttings about women murderers aided and abetted by the nun in charge of the orphanage).
Emily is like a character in a novel who becomes aware that she is a character in a novel, so much so that her cousin says to her:
‘Emily, you’re not living inside a book any more. You thought the woods were green and the ocean was blue, but they aren’t. You were happy in those books, but you’re outside now and you are not walking on paper...’
"Emily was born on 22 May, Saint Rita's feast day. The saint evoked against bleeding and desperate situations." Now, you tell me, gentle reader, was it a coincidence that the lady writing her story chose that date?
Emily lives with her father, "a quiet and reserved man" (which is a nice way of saying 'ineffectual'), in the big country house her great-grandfather built. They have a peaceful and affectionate relationship although he is as happy to keep to his own wee world as she is hers. She amasses facts; he collects butterflies and also keeps track of all the things that Mexico has lost over the years: "trolley cars, pepper trees, garter snakes, rivers and lakes, bats, and the forests". He fills his days by doing research on the disappearance of butterflies, moths and beetles from the Valley of Mexico and he vents his anger, frustration and sadness over the disappearance of his wife by bemoaning the loss of all these things whilst all the while filling the house with the romantic music of Agustin Lara. "I feel destruction around me," he tells his daughter, "This is why I have tried to keep at least some of the past in this house."
He has one brother, Charles, now deceased, who, according to her father, married a Mexican woman and produced one son, Santiago, neither of whom he had any contact with.
He never remarried and he never talks to his daughter about her mother.
Her mother, Margaret (known as Greta)
Emily clings onto everything she has been told about her mother be it fact, supposition or even opinion. Since her father refuses to talk about it Emily relies upon Mother Agata, the nun who runs the orphanage, to tell her what she knows. "Your father was both terrified that she would be found and terrified that she would not be found," she tells her.
Greta met Emily's father "in London in 1963 at a party held at the Mexican embassy. She was studying to be an architect" although when he "asked her if she wanted to leave London and move to Mexico she didn't hesitate." She never got to practice architecture though since she emigrated almost immediately after her graduation. Once she arrived she embraced the culture to an extreme extent, learning how to cook Mexican food and wearing "Indian dresses from Oaxaca". "When she dressed like this," Mother Agata tells Emily, "she looked completely Mexican. Nobody would have guessed she was Irish." She even converted to Catholicism and became quite outspoken against the English, not that that's an unusual thing to say about an Irishwoman.
Indirectly, through Mother Agata, Emily does receive one piece of motherly advice. Greta apparently came to the orphanage one day to share a few words of wisdom since Agata was the head of the orphanage and, as Mother Superior, serving as a surrogate mother to all in her care:
'Really?' Emily says with astonishment. 'I don't think you've ever told me this. And what is it?'
'Your mother told me that "mother's advice" was to know that there were some things that were worth killing for and going to jail for.'
'She said being lied to or spat on.'
The orphanage is run by Mother Agata, who is reminiscent of the gargantuan Dog-Woman in Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry if you swap dogs for kids:
Mother Agata is an enormous woman. Her hands are so large that she can carry most things in one hand. Dressed in her nun’s habit she looks like a colossal angel that people stand beside for shade or shelter. Children want to climb up the trunk, limb and branch of her body.
She is an important person in Emily's life and has really taken on the mother role with her too.
Emily's mother's past seems only now to exist in this place. Mother Agata knew her only briefly though and so has only a limited insight into the situation. This doesn't stop Emily asking questions.
All the children in the orphanage have lost their parents. But there is a difference between Emily and them. Their parents are dead, not simply missing:
Disappeared. An eleven-letter word. Disappeared like a lost ring, a sweater, and a spoon. Vanished. This is a word with eight letters. Vanished like early morning fog and dew. Vanished into the magician’s hat. Lost is a four-letter word. Lost into a genie’s lamp. Missing is a seven-letter word.
Still Emily feels at home there. After all she is “half an orphan”.
Clement only focuses our attention on three of these children: Angelica, a small eleven-year-old burn victim (Emily's favourite), and the cousins, ten-year-old Hipolito and nine-year-old Maria, who, because of their Oriental looks, get referred to as 'The Japanese'. Calling them 'The Siamese' would have been a bit too obvious.
Angelica keeps to herself. She cannot bear to be touched and seeks out cold and dark places often wearing only a single sheet to cover her nakedness and even that gets tossed aside from time to time especially in front of an open refrigerator. She loves nothing better than being given an ice cube to suck on.
'The Japanese' are clinging to each other when they arrive and they continue to do so throughout their stay. Although "[t]hey cannot hug or hold hands [at first] because of their plaster casts [they] constantly kiss and burrow against each other." They ask to sleep in the same bed (which is permitted) and drink from the same glass. They sit so close together there is no shadow between them. Eventually they start to act and talk like a single individual, a composite.
Saints are apparently a big thing in Mexico.
Every morning on many of Mexico's radio and television stations the saints' days are announced along with the weather forecast and traffic report.
On 19 April mother Agata celebrates the saint for emergencies and on 23 August she honours the feast day of the embroiderers. She claims that the primary reason she became a nun was to learn about saints and teach their lives to others.
As soon as 'The Japanese' arrive and she sees their casts "Mother Agata immediately lights a candle to the saint of broken bones: Stanislaus Kostka."
There are saints for just about everything, shipwrecks, lost belongings, for misfortune, for the blind, for pencils, amputees, alpinists, circus folk and doves. The list goes on and on.
With one exception, which I'll get to, every chapter ends with what we have to assume is an extract from Emily's two notebooks where she talks about one of her murderesses. These are not simply copies of what the newspapers have said but a real insight into Emily's mind and how she imagines these women. It can be tempting to skip over these passages and stick with the narrative but much would be lost if you did so. These contain without a doubt some of Clement's most poetic writing.
Everything grew in her. She said that if someone could look inside her they would find nails and screws.
She told people she suffered from snakebites.
In a lapse of two years she went to a hospital fifty times.
Her ailments included the following: she felt her eyes were inside her mouth; her nails were growing backward into her hands; a monkey bit her face; her feet were run over by a train; she heard piano music in her arms; she tasted mint in her ears; her shoulders had been bruised by rain; and an elephant stepped in her arm.
and of Lucrezia Borgia:
Her hair is wheat-hair to be eaten, desert-coloured to be cocooned inside, straw-hair that suffocates and leaves an elbow, ribbon of thigh, light moon moments of skin exposed out of the tangled thicket.
In her black, stone-black, fairytale-black tower, she watches the white sails of sailboats move, and lilt and sway and swing, like empty wedding dresses.
I said there is one chapter that doesn't end in italics. It's the first one. But there is a chapter, chapter six, 'A Famous Story About a Brother and Sister', that contains two, one within the narrative itself. (Each chapter does get a most interesting heading by the way.) One day Mother Agata hands Emily a newspaper clipping which tells the story of Maria Felix, an actress of whom it was said at the time "that she was a man in a woman's body" and who killed her brother in a duel. It is worth noting that this story gets special attention in the book.
And then there is Emily's cousin, Santi, who arrives on May 13th, "Saint Ferdinand III of Castile's saint's day. The saint of prisoners." Without any fuss he takes up residence in her mother's old sewing room. I would have thought that a big country house would have more than two bedrooms but that's where he sleeps. Emily's father accepts him on face value and then retreats into his own world leaving the two cousins to really fend for themselves
Santi grew up a lonely child, because, he says, his parents were so in love. He is very different to Emily but then clearly her uncle was a very different man to her father having chosen to live in the deserts of Chihuahua and to embrace Mexican culture rather than hanging onto the past and the family's English heritage. Santi is a dark-skinned, freckled architect with a cruel and controlling streak clearly inherited from his father. He is younger than Emily by "about two years" but acts older and is certainly more worldly wise than she is.
If I have a problem with anyone in the book then it's with Santi. I know what the Big Bad Wolf's motivation is but I can see any actor trying to play Santi struggling to get inside his skin and to understand why he does the things he does.
And this is where I have a problem with Emily because I struggle to see her attraction to him and her willingness over what feels like a very short period of time to suppress her own personal identity for him. Okay he gets nastier as the book progresses but even at the start my spider sense was screaming at me to watch this guy the moment he appeared on page 59:
Santi turns away from the table and faces Emily and smiles at her. He stands slightly hunched over to one side with his hands in the pockets of his blue jeans. She looks into his face as if she gazed into a mirror, to see if he looks at all like her – in search of some feature that shows the bloodline. […] He has long black hair that curls at the base of his neck, and black eyes. His dark skin is covered with darker freckles.
I've met his type before, charming on the outside but unable to keep the front up for any length of time. I didn't like him and I thought less of Emily for liking him.
It's patently obvious that he is the catalyst but is he also the antagonist? Can things be that simple? You can't have a story without Red Riding Hood and you can't have a story without the Big Bad Wolf either even if he does turn up wearing sheep's clothing and smelling of melons.
This book is riddled with symbols, clues if you will. What is striking is that the narrative comes across as open and honest but you'll be surprised by what is lying in the subtext waiting to be dug up.
The writing is lyrical though not as dense as Elizabeth Smart's, although you'll be left in no doubts that a poet produced this. Clement is more reminiscent of a Latin American Jeanette Winterson who dips her nib into the myths of the past to pen a fable for the present. It has the feel of a novel in translation. I say this not in a bad way but it's as if the language has been filtered, distilled.
This is a story about lost things and how we compensate for their loss, be it the loss of things or people, the loss of innocence, of culture, or fauna even.
Unlike your typical mystery we don't have a detective or an investigative reporter there to summarise everything neatly for us. Well, that's not exactly true. Emily does finally get an explanation but it's off-page – we're not privy to it, we have to work it out for ourselves – and the same with what Emily does with that knowledge, again, this is not stated explicitly and we are left to guess. Have we picked up on all the clues? So it's not your typical fable either. There's no neat moral worked in there, not that I could see. But that doesn't mean it's not a satisfying read. It's just it expects its reader to do a little more work than your average novel does. At the very least that means thumbing through the thing after you've reached the end to see if you've missed something. That's what happens when poets get to write novels.
Jennifer Clement is a poet, biographer and novelist. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. She was part of the NYC art scene during the early eighties but she now lives in Mexico City. She was recently the recipient of the Systema Nacional de Credadores, a grant awarded in Mexico for outstanding contributions to literature, whose previous recipients include Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. She is also co-founder and director of the San Miguel Poetry Week.