Subjectivity and Reality,
This review is from: Donna's Men (Paperback)
What has led Donna to the edge of a breakdown? Will Peter ever cast off his status as perpetual "outsider"? What lies behind the multiple appearances of the name "Catherine"?
Michael E. Lloyd's novel comprises a trilogy of personal accounts linking the life of a middle-aged woman to those of two very different brothers. As the story unfolds, we gradually come to see that something from the past binds these characters in a way that none truly understands. Meanwhile, a single enigmatic character works quietly behind the scenes to offer one of them a key to the mystery, a key that will unlock the past, release the truth and open the door to long-held hopes and fears.
Book I follows the inner monologue of an unidentified woman, Donna, as she experiences a major existential crisis -- an alcohol-fuelled episode characterised by self-pity and deception. Donna's descent into subjectivity concludes in a dream-like "literary banquet" attended by congeries of her heroes. Rendered helpless by a surfeit of navel-gazing, ironically even the self-deluded Donna must eventually recognise that her hallucinatory experiences lack the authenticity craved by these "men." And an act of "selfish kindness" finally strips away the pretence and forces her to return to the ordinary world where, with luck, she can begin anew.
Book II offers another perspective on subjective truth and existence: the recorded thoughts and feelings of a young boy growing up in the "austerity" Britain of the 1950s. Peter is an unhappy child: his twin sister died early and suddenly, leaving the bright little boy alone with a caring, but neurotic, mother and a practically-minded father and elder brother. Bereft of an empathetic male role-model, Peter retreats into a private world principally occupied with his own frustrations and alleviated only by the guidance he takes from the voice of his deceased twin, recorded in a secret diary.
Peter's testimony in Book II contrasts sharply with that of Donna: it is uncontaminated by the narrow cultural glosses that make the latter's account so suspect. But the eye of the child does not approach the world in innocence. Instead, the latent tensions and prejudices inherent in every family are all too apparent in Peter's commentary -- skewing his assessment of the behaviour, decisions and choices of others. Nevertheless, we are more inclined to take at least his introspective observations at face value: opportunities for self-deception must be minimal here. So his childhood diary offers us truth of a sort, albeit one that is narrow, partial and of limited value.
In Book III, the bigger picture swings into view. The narrative lens pans back as Donna, long recovered from her breakdown, encounters the recently retired Robert, Peter's supposedly unsympathetic brother. The now-mellowed Robert has possession of his young brother's diary and we are able to place its revelations into proper context, using the comprehensive family history supplied.
Slowly but inexorably, Robert's, Donna's and Peter's life-stories converge on a single event. A chance meeting, many years before, has created a shared destiny that none would have freely chosen. This event centres on a single name -- "Catherine" -- a name which has hitherto carried very different significance for each of them. The puzzle is eventually resolved, but is anyone now the better for that?
Donna's Men is a complex, multi-layered work: part historical mystery, part literary and musical tribute, part social documentary, part exploration of the epistemology of testimony. In the absence of an omniscient narrator, successive embedding of the characters' subjective accounts offers something akin to objectivity; but it is up to the readers, through active engagement, to come up with their own interpretations of the principal protagonists and their personal relationships. In judging their actions and responses, we need to balance what we know with much that we do not, and perhaps this is the essence of the human condition.
In this cracking good yarn, Lloyd does not tell us what to think: instead, having shown us the way, he invites us to consider all the options and leaves the choices to us.