Thursday, 23 January 2014

Empty Chairs by Stacey Danson

Review by Bill Kirton

Some of my friends have said of this book that they want to read it but, knowing the pain and horrors it chronicles, need to get themselves into the right frame of mind to do so. Others have admitted that they doubt whether they’ll actually get round to it. They should and must – for several reasons.

It’s an autobiographical story, written under a pseudonym, which reveals how a 3 year old was subjected to gross sexual abuses at the behest of her own mother, and forced to continue servicing visitors to the house until eventually, at the age of eleven, she ran away. Thereafter, life on the streets proved equally stressful, threatening to confirm all the negatives she felt about how people behave.

Perhaps that crude synopsis has made you join the ‘I’m not sure I could read this – it’s too horrible’ camp. If it has, it’s deprived you of an astonishing experience. Because this is a page turner and, bizarrely, a sort of celebration. I know that’s a cliché beloved of Amazon reviewers, but here it’s a fact. The story is relentlessly riveting. There’s tension, hidden (and not so hidden) forces at work, powerful characters, and observations of social interaction that are penetrating insights into what lurks behind the facades of sunny, happy-go-lucky Australia, where families picnic in the sun and glory in sights such as the fabulous Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The abuse inflicted on the infant Sassy-Girl (let’s use the street name she earned) was not at the hands of social low-lifes, but ‘respectable’ middle class professionals. When she eventually rebels and runs away, she has to find places to sleep, clothes to wear, ways to get food, and simultaneously avoid the pressure from pimps to recruit her into their stable. She experiences some kindnesses but her whole life seems to have been a denial that trust is possible between humans. When groups of girls at the zoo mock her for the clothes she’s wearing, she asks ‘why do people do those things? What was it that gave those girls the right to make fun of something they didn't understand?’ adding that ‘It would take a very long time to discover how common that trait was in humans’.

It would have been so easy (in theory) to succumb to prostitution to earn her keep, but the abuse she suffered makes her determined never to allow her body to be used again. As she says ‘I knew my soul would die anyway if I made a conscious decision to sell the child's body in which it was housed. I wasn’t being brave, or strong. I simply knew that all of me would survive – or another me would. What point would there be living without my soul and my spirit?’

An author’s note at the beginning speaks of the compulsion Danson had to write this, the promise she’d made to someone to do so, but she also admits that it’s taken longer to get round to it than she thought it would. And that’s part of the spell this narrative weaves. We’re getting the intimate day to day experiences of a 12 year old – the encounters, the threats, the violence, the alienation – but they’re all being recounted by the mature woman she survived to become.

And the narrator herself is aware of this, of course. This is a woman who knows how to write, how to use language, sometimes simply, always directly, to engage the reader, a woman who has come to know that friendships and trust are possible, and yet who’s re-entering the mind of her pre-teen self and reliving those years, with their innocence and ignorance. Because Sassy-Girl is uneducated (in formal terms). She thinks everyone speaks Australian (except Americans, whom she’s seen on TV and who speak American). ‘If someone had told me we all spoke English,’ she says, ‘I would have been even more confused.

At times, the mature narrator lends her voice to the girl. When she makes her way to the War Memorial, for example, she says she ‘spent the rest of the night in the company of the spirits of people who had died in a nightmare as well’. And there’s an awareness of the power of simplicity in sentences such as ‘I wanted to laugh and mean it’, or ‘It reminded me of the way I cried, back when I still could.’


But these aren’t intended to be criticisms. The moment Sassy-Girl suspects she’s feeling self-pity, she forces herself out of it. She’s a survivor and, despite all the torments she’s endured in these early years, what remains is an affirmation of her spirit, a confidence that, despite the enormous forces ranged against her, she won’t be a loser. It’s a compelling read, a reminder of the deepest evils of which we’re capable, but also a celebration of our ability to overcome.