I first came across Winnie M Li back in 2015, when
I helped crowdfund the Clear Lines Festival. It clashed with another event I
was attending, so for a couple of years Winnie’s name was just a name on my
radar. I finally met her back in November last year, and at that time it felt
weird to be meeting her in the context of something where we were peers, both
activists, both committed to change the world and help others that what had
happened to us had happened to too. In November I was still suffering from the
imposter syndrome, of whether my work was good enough to be taken seriously,
and whether ‘real’ activists would support me, or question why I was attempting
to make a business out of helping people. None of that seemed to bother Winnie.
In March she asked me if I would like to appear with her on the Q&A panel
that followed Imogen Butler-Cole’s debut of Foreign Body at the Women of the
World Festival at Southbank. And I knew I was accepted.
There are many parallels between what happened to Winnie and I. For us both, it happened 9 years ago, within a few weeks of each other. For us both, the rape would be categorised as a stranger rape. For us both, we were adult women when it happened, we are only 5 years apart in age. For us both, we are dealing with the impact the rape had on our ability to settle down, and to be living our thirties, and our child-bearing years, childless. And for us both, we are using what happened, and how we have re-built our lives, to role model to others that our lives can be re-built and doing the work we can do to break the silence on behalf of other survivors and work to challenge the societal myths that keep us caged.
And there the similarities end.
Mine was the archetypal date-rape, where, whether or not I was drugged too, a lot of alcohol was drunk. It happened in my own home at night. Mine was the kind of rape where the societal myths could say I didn’t take enough care of myself, I should’ve done things differently, it might not have happened.
Winnie’s was not like that. Winnie was hiking, in broad daylight, in a park in Belfast. Her attacker was a teenager of 15. Societal myths have little to say about this type of attack. Statistically, they are rare. And yet, they happen.
I was honoured and privileged to receive an early copy of Dark Chapter, and yet, I didn’t want to read it. There’s something about knowing it might be fiction, but it happened, and it happened to someone you know, that stopped me from picking it up and reading for several days. And then, after reading, it has been very hard to sit down and write the words that would form a book review. The swirls of emotion inside of me don’t translate easily to words. There is a risk, a deep concern, that the writing of words about this book, will only trivialise those swirling emotions.
What Winnie has written is good. If I think about any of the unputdownable crime novels I’ve read (John Grisham, Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell), it is as unputdownable. It is gripping. If you want a book to get absorbed in as you sit by the pool on your summer holiday, then you can’t go wrong with Dark Chapter.
But what Winnie has written is far more than that. Winnie has done what is rare in this world. And it is rare on many levels.
She has written a book that does not shy away from the turmoil of memory in the lived experience of rape. The passage that contains the actual rape, took my breath away. The events afterwards, getting through the initial few days, the shock, the numbness, the ability to go on autopilot when necessary; it is real.
She has also written a book that doesn’t end when the trial outcome is resolved. Most crime novels, the verdict represents the crescendo, and that is that. In Dark Chapter, the trial is but one milestone along the path that depicts Vivian’s journey towards recovery. And the book doesn’t even end with her recovery, it’s clear that recovery is a journey. It’s a rare crime novel where the victim is the heroine, and not a plot device.
Which brings me to what I think must be the rarest approach to writing about rape. In the character of Johnny, Winnie has brought to life her rapist, the 15-year-old whose upbringing and early life experiences led him to doing what he did that day in that park. In imagining a real person, with insecurities and weaknesses and hurts, Winnie has put a face to a rapist that is not one of a monster. And to have done that for your own rapist, that is more than brave. That is the type of compassionate spirit that will change the world and beat out hatred and misunderstanding.
With Dark Chapter, Winnie M Li has not just written a good book. She has written a great book. She has written a book that will help all those reading it to understand the lived experience of rape, and she has done it in a way that does not preach to readers how they should feel and respond. She has written a book that will help all those survivors reading it to know that they are not alone, what they are feeling are normal reactions to a traumatic experience, and that recovery is not a pipe dream. And she has written a book that helps to change the narrative of all rapists being only monsters, and instead shows that whilst the act is monstrous, it is possible to empathise with the human being behind it. Dark Chapter is a book that has the potential to change the world through changing minds.