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Private Rites by Julia Armfield review – in deep water

Private Rites by Julia Armfield review – in deep water

Do individual losses still matter in a world in its final stages? This is the question asked by Agnes, Isla and Irene, three queer, volatile daughters who congregate uneasily to view the corpse of their divisive, megalomaniac architect father Stephen Carmichael, while the rain pours down outside – as it has poured down for several years. Carmichael is both a contributor to this state of affairs – his gleaming masterpieces defied the early signs of climate crisis – and a saviour for the rich. His own house, which he now gifts provocatively to his youngest daughter alone, is a modernist folly-cum-masterpiece built high on ingeniously floating pylons.

This rainy city, where people live makeshift lives on the top floors of flooded tower blocks, travelling by ferry, is natural territory for Julia Armfield. She is both poet and prophet of the watery and the queer and the channels connecting them. Her vision of the sea creature in all of us – scales hidden under skin – is as seductive as the charged, casually incandescent sentences she conjures it in. She is writing in an honourable tradition: throughout literary history there are watery women destined to find and to lose themselves in the depths of the sea, whether that’s Edna drowning in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, or Ellen accepting her destiny as a mermaid in Rose Macaulay’s And No Man’s Wit. Armfield has given this trope new political urgency, first in 2022’s Our Wives Under the Sea, featuring a hushed-up submarine disaster, and now in this all-too-convincing imagining of the next phase in the climate crisis. Private Rites is so compelling partly because both the narrator and the protagonists feel intensely drawn to this watery world, even as they know it signals their end.

Carmichael’s youngest daughter, Agnes, is a swimmer by temperament. She takes refuge in the shadowy thoughts she has while lane swimming breast stroke, glad that her mind can flick “blandly from songs she used to listen to, to actors who died, to dinner, to the fact that Dylan Thomas, when young, looked like literally every ugly boyfriend of every straight friend she’s ever had”, and glad that here she’s “less liable to come upon a thought that will cause her to scream and to never stop screaming”. Sometimes, her brain thus buoyed, she has brief sexual encounters with women in the changing room. A childhood spent cowering from the father who regularly hit her and left her to cry alone until she wet herself has left her fearful of more vulnerable forms of intimacy. Then she unexpectedly falls in love, opening herself to an efflorescence of tenderness of the kind Armfield writes so well, as her lover Stephanie leads her to an obsolete swimming pool on the rooftop of a makeshift nightclub. Stephanie opens up the pool cover to allow the rainwater in, and Agnes discovers the pleasures of a drenched, obliterating kind of sex, “the two of them moving in tandem, floating and drowning, fixed somewhere between”.

The novel is an overt take on King Lear. Like Lear, Carmichael divided part of his estate between his daughters before his death, and if in his case this was malicious and tyrannical, it brings out the latent tyranny within Lear’s gesture. Shakespeare, too, depicts a realm where the “little world of man” strives vainly “to out-scorn / The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain”; the play is still one of the most powerful reckonings of our powerlessness before the climate that we have, made back in the days when the climate wasn’t something we’d created.

Armfield’s daughterly take on Shakespeare is brilliantly audacious. Repeatedly, Agnes and her older, bossier sisters, Isla and Irene, try to come together, only to slip into habitual competitiveness. “It is,” Isla finds, “just so easy to allow herself the fun of resenting Agnes, as easy as it was when they were kids.” At the heart of this are absent mothers. Isla and Irene’s mother drowned herself after being ground down by their father; before her death, she had been replaced by Agnes’s mother, who disappeared shortly after her daughter’s birth. The sisters endlessly seek out forms of mothering, only to reject them, and offer themselves as maternal figures, only to withdraw.

There’s a mystery charging through the book, signalled in the cryptic opening scene where a woman gashes a bloody cut in another woman’s mouth in a cultish ritual. Gradually this emerges as a memory from Irene’s childhood. The book ends with a revelation about this that takes the form of a scene in the kind of horror film that Armfield has alluded to throughout. I found this brutal and jarring – all the more so because she writes it so grippingly. Having committed to the intricacy of these women’s feelings, it’s frustrating and disorienting suddenly to find ourselves in another kind of story altogether. This seems to be the point: Armfield is always committed to experiments with genre and here she rips away realism, suggesting the old novelistic forms are as inadequate now as the half‑hearted forms of political protest that take place in the background.

This isn’t what we’re left with, however. Something slower, starker and gentler emerges in the final pages. The great strength of Private Rites is that it never commits to an apocalyptic vision, even as the world it depicts becomes cartoonishly apocalyptic. In the final, astonishingly moving pages, the narrator affirms her commitment to dailiness in life and in art. “Better to hold one’s hands to whatever warmth there is, to kiss and talk and grieve and fuck and hold tight against the whitening of the sky.” Is it possible both to be responsible in the face of the largest challenges and to honour the tiny possibilities for grace in love? Armfield stages this dilemma with great vitality. There’s no new order, as in Lear; it’s too late for the kind of responsibility that might fend off apocalypse. But here, too, the survivors have discovered love with new clarity and force, and small forms of weathered, personal redemption remain grimly possible.

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Source: theguardian.com