I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins review – escape routes | Fiction

“I wanted,” says the narrator of Claire Vaye Watkins’s second novel, “to behave like a man, a slightly bad one” – and if ever there was a sentence to put on a tote bag, it’s this one. Which woman hasn’t, at times, longed to adopt the kind of smiling mediocrity men take for granted? But what is mediocrity in a man is unforgivable in a woman; worse if she is also a mother. And so we find ourselves boxed in by circumstance; and the worse the circumstance, the smaller the box. This is the territory Watkins explores, and she does so powerfully, resisting the need either to sentimentalise or apologise.

Shortly after the birth of her first child, the novel’s narrator walks out of her home, taking her breast pump, but leaving behind her husband and daughter. Leaving, too, her middle-class academic’s life to return to the California she grew up in, a place of chaotic poverty and casinos, OxyContin and coyotes and desert. This imploding narrator’s name, it becomes evident, is Claire Vaye Watkins. Fictional Watkins shares at least some biographical details with author Watkins – a mother called Martha; a father who first procured girls for, and then gave evidence against, Charles Manson – and yet this is unquestionably a novel. It is a mark of Watkins’s confidence that she displays her source material so brazenly, and I loved her for it. The question of female imagination seems at times to be tediously inescapable, the autofiction tag so readily applied, that to find an author meeting the issue head on is invigorating. It also pre-empts interrogation, forcing the reader to concentrate on what’s in front of them. And what emerges is a study of intergenerational pain.

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Although the novel is focused on women, it is poverty, rather than patriarchy, that is presented as the central evil, and Watkins writes with clarity about the fact that acquiring money doesn’t automatically alleviate the legacy of a difficult childhood. Almost all the characters who drift in and out of view are damaged in one way or another by chronic poverty and the scavengers that follow it: poor service provision, a predatory gambling industry, the prescription drug crisis. In one of the book’s most haunting sections, Claire’s mother, after years sober, is casually prescribed opiates for Lyme disease, which was long dismissed as hysteria, and quickly loses control of her life. The exception is Rust, the narrator’s college friend, who, insulated by past and present wealth, finds perfect joy in the smooth action of his automatic kitchen towel dispenser – a detail that made me both laugh and wince. Still, the men, even the good ones, pass on their suffering to women, expecting to be cared both for and about. “I was determined to make it out of college unraped,” Claire says, “an actual goal I had” – but she can only manage this by sleight of hand, choosing to cast as something else the time her boyfriend, “not at all violent but also not relenting”, holds her down. This, she seems to say, is how so many women survive – through a dogged refusal of victimhood, which is quite different from not being hurt.

There were parts I found less convincing. When Claire speaks to her college friends, the writing loses some of its power. Perhaps the intention was to show a failure of connection; if so, it didn’t quite work for me. Teenage letters from the narrator’s mother to a cousin add little to the thrust of the book and are presented in reverse chronological order, a slight misstep in a novel that is otherwise impeccably readable, despite its episodic structure. On the other hand, Watkins is excellent on the dulling quality of depression, the way it can make one both lucid and careless. A section in which Claire lists her problems, ranging from not being able to find her phone to not being able to grasp how final death is, ends: “My problem is I am only a little bothered by all of this and want to change not at all.” She is good, too, on how having a child can feel like being broken. “Motherhood had cracked me in half … The woman they admired, who’d written the books they liked or at least had heard of, if only today, was on the other side of a canyon.”

I had this book pegged, at first, as angry, but struggled as I read to characterise the quality of this anger – until I realised that what I had mistaken for fury was something else. I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness is a novel not of rage but of incandescent sadness, radiating grief for the lost, the damaged, the left behind. It is remarkably clear-sighted. While presenting the causes for Claire’s crisis, Watkins never mistakes context for excuse. What she offers instead is compassion, and the suggestion that, for those lucky enough to have the option, it is possible that the only way out is through.

Jessie Greengrass’s latest novel is The High House (Swift). I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins is published by Riverrun (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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