The Book of Revelation: A Novel
by Rupert Thomson
Man Stripped Bare
A review by Georgie Lewis
The story of a young, handsome male dancer being kidnapped and made a sexual slave to three women is not an easy task for a writer to pull off without appearing tawdry, pornographic, or simply pretentious. The fact that Rupert Thomson succeeds in presenting the premise intelligently in an emotionally sound manner, as well as creating a thoughtful meditation on the fragility of identity in regards to our sexuality, is testament to this author's talent.
The Book of Revelation opens in the first person, with the contented (unnamed) narrator, happily musing over his successful ballet career in Amsterdam and the love he feels for his beautiful French girlfriend. Despite his aversion to her smoking habit, he agrees to buy her a packet of cigarettes and while walking to the store is hailed by three women, dressed in cloaks, who fawn over his dancing skills, drug him, and take him captive. Really!
The first half of the novel, after the initial kidnap, is set during the eighteen days of captivity, and is a canny observation of the methods of sexual abuse, and how sexuality, particularly in the male, can be separated by physiology. We see the unnamed narrator's identity being almost shed like a snake's skin by his female gaolers as his body betrays his mind: erections come unbidden; his own arousal is greeted by self-disgust. The period of captivity is written in third person but with an ear to inner responses of the prisoner. It is both poignant and painful in many ways. While reading other reviews of this book, I was a bit amused by some male reviewers admitting feelings of titillation during the first half -- well, at least up until the "screwdriver through the foreskin" moment. I found the novel suffocating, desperately sad, and enraging -- yet chillingly compelling, in the same way that John Fowles's The Collector kept me gripped to the sorry end.
The narrator is inexplicably released after eighteen days, still knowing very little about the identities of the three women apart from small physical details of their bodies -- their faces were always hidden. The second half of The Book of Revelation, which returns the first person ownership to the narrator, deals with the repercussions of those eighteen days and the long journey into his acceptance of the abuse. Initially he cannot explain to those around him what really happened. His girlfriend thinks he was with another woman. Well, he was, wasn't he? he wonders. He chooses to leave in silence rather than explain himself, and from here on his journey physically and mentally offers insight not only into the rape victim, but the male self-esteem. A Londoner by birth, he moves away from his home in Amsterdam, seeks escape in Britain, yet after a time returns to Amsterdam in an attempt to track down his persecutors. Like gaps in the memory of a survivor of trauma, the structure is loose; the narrative tends towards the erratic and it ducks and dives as the narrator tries to reestablish his identity. Some of the results are brutal, some just tragic.
This is a haunting novel, and not an easy one. Its slimness in length (just over 250 pages) belies the depth of emotion that one experiences while reading it, or even once it has been put down and left for a while. "Resonant" is not quite the right word to describe it, for that sounds so concrete and the emotions one feels will flicker and change.
Rupert Thomson is a most intelligent writer who consistently pushes psychological boundaries. His current novel Divided Kingdom (which I am in the middle of, and really enjoying) is a dystopian fantasy set in a sort of futuristic Britain where the population is geographically divided into four personality types -- the four humours -- and deals with the inevitable trauma experienced by its newly relocated citizens. Trauma, it would appear, is something he writes about very well. Thomson is not a comfortable writer dealing with comfortable topics, similar to his British contemporaries Ian McEwan or Patrick McGrath. But he is just as provocative, and perhaps just as talented.