In her work as a journalist, Sara Wheeler has often inhabited “borderlands of turbulence and uncertainty”, and travelled into dangerous territory.
Readers familiar with Catherine Bush’s earlier novels might recall Arcadia from Rules of Engagement, her fascination with war and violence, and the question that haunts her: “What would you be willing to risk for love?”
Perhaps Sara Wheeler is driven by a related question: What would you be willing to risk for truth?
Each woman negotiates the shifting line between the personal and the political, between individual integrity and overarching values.
And each woman grapples with loss which reverberates well beyond her personal experience of devastation.
“There’s a piece of all this I haven’t told you. Something that makes it all particularly hard,” Sara explains.
“I was once falsely accused of something, something so much smaller than this but. And then she unraveled the story of Colleen Bertucci and the wallet, watching David’s face take in her words. As she spoke, the palm on her chest released itself.”
The ‘but’ there gradually takes shape for readers in the two hundred pages before Sara’s discussion with David. (The deliberate but delicate construction is reflected in the exacting design: from cover image to endpapers, the attention-to-detail is remarkable.)
Sara’s accusation is not a subject that she freely discloses; in fact, she seems to swerve from it even in moments of quiet contemplation. Hence, the burden she has born, maintaining this silence.
Because Accusation‘s narrative is rooted in Sara’s experiences, readers don’t doubt her innocence.
She has lived with the wrongful accusation, with having been charged with a crime she did not commit, for years; readers feel this weight upon her.
When, later, she is the observer in a situation in which she was once a participant, readers understand that she cannot deny the impact of this devastating experience, now that she is the one who must determine whether an acquaintance who has been accused of a crime is responsible.
Readers also know, however, that Sara has already disclosed this closely guarded information to someone else, long before she shared it with her lover (of three years).
And, ironically, she has shared the story with the man who is now accused of a crime himself.
This fold in the narrative, the added layer of complexity, the seam where accusations meet, is where the story’s richness resides.
Sara met this man long before, at a party she attended at the invitation of the woman who testified on her behalf years before, as a character witness in Sara’s trial. (Yes, another layer to the fold.)
It is a chance encounter, unexpectedly intense, rooted in complex motivations and an emergency. And, for a variety of reasons, Sara tells this man about the accusation she faced.
(These reasons make sense from Sara’s perspective – and to readers, too, who inhabit her space – but when she has to explain them later to the woman who invited her to the party, things seem less clear. But that, too, is understandable: things are always clear when there is only a single perspective to negotiate.)
Circumstances intersect, and in this night, there is wonder: a peculiarly intimate moment in a service centre and open discussion of intense emotions.
“People, Raymond Renaud said, shifting in the dark, think they remember things that aren’t true. And when they believe something is true, it is hard to make them believe it isn’t.”
There is a startling quality to the sense of authenticity in their exchange, so when Raymond is later accused of abusing the children in the circus he was managing, Sara has more than one reason to examine her response to the news, more than one reason to put her journalistic training to work.
“Doubt: once it enters your mind and body, how difficult it is to get rid of it. If not impossible.”
In the same way that doubt seems to clamor and crowd, the complexity of the narrative in Accusation presses and circles. It is thrilling and tantalizing to recognize the swelling layers of fabrication.
The passages which overtly consider the themes are certainly of interest.
“There were so many different kinds of lying: the conscious expedient lies of social navigation, lies told to protect others and to shield yourself, the elisions, partial seeing, necessary secrets, deeper lies told to spare the self from pain, not to mention the inevitable rearranging of memory and the lies that weren’t really lies at all but alterations believed by those who told them, the problem of getting things wrong and needing to get things/ wrong because the truth was impossible to reach or impossible for the self to contain.”
But perhaps even more fascinating are the more subtle explorations: the way, for instance, that Sara approaches the idea of creating a narrative for publication as a journalist.
Individual elements of the process take on a sharp significance when she has a personal stake in the outcome of her investigation. The subjects she selects to interview in-person, the process of questioning, the shifting dynamics of exchanges with and without the need for linguistic translation, the production of (not-exactly-verbatim) transcripts.
This process highlights the sense that life is an ever-edited version of events only partially understood, constantly modified, inherently unreliable. Everything seems risky, vulnerability is heightened.
When Sara recalls, in memory, her experience of being betrayed by someone who refused to be a character witness for her many years earlier, the anger seems fresh.
“She had the alarming sensation of the whole world tilting sideways.”
And Sara’s world tilts again as events unfold in Accusation. It is all intertwined: “Each loss was particular but pushed up against every other loss.”
As Arcadia learned in Rules of Engagement, the outcome of one intervention necessarily affects the next and choosing to take action always entails a risk in both personal and political realms, sometimes with devastating consequences.
Sara’s story is disturbing, and increasingly more so as the plot develops and her character strains under the weight of complications.
Accusation is a tale of risk told in an assured and accomplished voice: compelling, unsettling, haunting.
Catherine Bush appears at the 34th International Festival of Authors. She attended the event in Woodstock on Wednesday.
She will be one of five authors reading tonight, Saturday October 26 at 8pm, along with Jami Attenberg.
This post is part of the 2013 IFOA Celebration.