“I’ve always considered myself to be, basically, a lucky person.” That’s how Tana French’s The Wych Elm begins. The person in whose voice the novel unfolds is Toby, who is a young white male, personable, and rich. Toby lives in his world, and it is a world that is separate, for other characters come in, who, along with you, gape a bit at the glass wall that seems to separate them and you from Toby. It seems like a soundproof glass wall — Toby can see the rest of the world, but nothing really percolates into his understanding.
The book, purportedly a mystery, as Tana French writes mysteries, isn’t a conventional mystery. And yet, that’s what Tana French does. If you read her first book, ‘In the woods’, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t, stop now, and go read it. I have written earlier about the way she mixes imagery to create a confusing world; as confusing as her characters find it to be.
You go in as blind as the characters themselves, and you discover alongside them, not just the answers to whodunitandwhy but also answers about the self — am I really a broadminded person; am I brave; what are my ethical boundaries; what lines I am willing to smudge, cross, and even rub away?
The discovery is not joyful. Often, it is horrific.
I used to think reading is about putting you in the shoes of someone so you can ‘empathise’ with them. More and more, I feel that’s not the case. It is more of showing you how far your feet are from the land they trod. It is about making you realise how you could never fit into their skin.
When you don’t like the protagonist, not being able to imagine being in their shoes comes with a sense of relief, a sort of balloon of virtuous comfort. It is hard to like Toby. He is blithely cruel, and is then surprised and hurt when he discovers that he can’t get away with it. There’s a niggling doubt — would I be this person if I were in a similar circumstance? It is a question I keep glancing sideways at; and it pokes some big holes into the balloon.
What if the protagonist is someone you like, and yet, you shiver, thankful that you are not in their shoes?
That’s what I went through watching ‘I may destroy you’. I started watching it without knowing anything about it; as I loved the actor Micheala Coel in Black Earth Rising. She has also created ‘I may destroy you’. There’s a lot to talk about this series, but what shook me the most was my strong sense of relief that I wasn’t in her shoes. I cried all through the last episode, and I wanted to so strongly step into the screen and hug her, and the hug wasn’t for her, it was for me. The storytelling surprises you - where you expect anger, you encounter kindness. Where you think you know who is right, you realise, you need to rethink your assumptions. Where you think you have understood someone, they turn around and it is a stranger all over again. It is gloriously messy.
Watching ‘I may destroy you’, I wondered about empathy. I have assumed empathy is to seek to understand, or to feel to some measure, what someone else does. And yet, I found myself asking, is that really possible? Or is it the case that you are transferring your own biases and thoughts and projecting it on their experience, and thinking you ‘understand’ them?
Recently, a friend and I had to deal with a dead rat. I saw their face, all scrunched up, lifting the rat’s carcass and then burying it. I later said, I get it - it is such a gory sight; matted fur, blood, and the stench. And they laughed and said — no, I was struggling for breath given the mask I was wearing. The rat didn’t bother me in the least.