“If the person you want can never be yours, what else is there to do but learn to be alone?”
Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives is an epistolary novel between a wealthy dying American man and a 39-year-old woman who originally hailed from South Africa but now lives in Australia. It’s been 17 years since they last had contact, and now the relationship is re-awakened by the imminent death of 70 year-old Royce. Royce’s compulsion to write to Vita is fueled by an admitted “craven need for absolution.” For her part, Vita acknowledges that Royce is “one of the strangest, most significant things that ever happened to me.” It would seem that the novel’s focus will be what occurred between them, and while that’s true, that aspect of the novel is overshadowed by their individual pasts. At first the letters are packed with recrimination and vitriol on Vita’s side while Royce takes a position of humility. Soon the correspondence slips into two narratives with both characters wrestling with demons of guilt, regret and obsession, but this is also a novel about power: the power of youth and beauty, the power of money, the power of class and race, and the power to do whatever it takes to get what you want.
So how did these two seemingly disparate characters establish a relationship in the first place? Vita’s family (her father was an activist) left South Africa and moved to Australia. Vita attended university in Boston and very quickly latched onto a desire to be a documentary filmmaker. This goal seemed within her grasp when she won a Lushington Foundation fellowship. This is how she met Royce. The Fellowship was his to give, and it was founded in memory of Kitty Lushington a woman he loved and followed to Pompeii. She died in an accident on Vesuvius.
As the exchanges unfold, the two correspondents may occasionally answer some issue in a previous letter (actually long e-mails, but don’t let that put you off), but mostly they tell their own stories. Royce’s story is painful, and also unreliable. As for Vita: she struggles with identity, displacement, guilt, a stalled career, and finally an obsession. Where did her documentary film making career go? We know she lives in the small town of Mudgee working on an olive farm. What went wrong?
As we try to nail down the truth of exactly what happened to both of these people, the book is, at times, a slippery read. Royce admits:
We can fill in each other’s gaps and somewhere between us may lie the truth of ourselves. Our memories are always imperfect, Kitty used to say. We have to leave ourselves clues-photos, scrapbooks, journals–or our very own pasts become inaccessible, though we lived through every moment. What hope, then, of deciphering somebody else’s past, let alone the history of an ancient civilization.
We follow Royce as he recalls, through his letters, how he tagged along to Pompeii, puppylike at Kitty’s heels. At first he professes that it’s enough to just be in her presence, but later, he hopes to catch her when, and if, she falls from another relationship. Through Royce’s letters, we see the ephemeral Kitty obsess on the plants found in Pompeii’s Garden of the Fugitives, and underlying the archaeological aspects of the novel is a delicate thread concerning the dangers of placing our own narratives onto others. We also begin to see why Royce was attracted to Vita in the first place as there are definite similarities between the two women, and it would seem that Royce who lost Kitty, perhaps hopes that he found someone to replace her.
While Royce’s letters are packed with details about Pompeii, Vita’s letters are full of details of her attempts to make documentaries. Vita’s films say more about her life than she realises, and while she films landscapes and various processes of production, she struggles with putting people into her films. Vita’s struggles ultimately reveal how the male-female dynamic enters her career:
In a class on feminism my second year at college, the teaching assistant a woman in her mid-forties, had asked all us peachy-faced girls in her study section if we’d ever felt discriminated against as women. Not a single one of us put up a hand, and we refrained defiantly, with a hit of swagger: things had changed, the world belonged to us, we had always been treated as equals.
The assistant, who had been raised in a commune set up in permanent protest outside a weapons factory in Sweden, looked at us sadly. “Mark my words,” she said, “the doors will start to slam shut in your faces the day you are no longer considered youthful. Only then will you see how misguided you were to equate being young and female with being empowered. You may turn your back on feminism now, think you don’t need it, but by god you’ll need to once you start to age. The opportunities you thought were based on merit will dry up just as you do.”
I’d looked around the classroom and seen on the faces of my fellow female students no alarm, nothing but the pity I too was feeling for her. We all believed that her prediction was the product of personal disappointment and we felt safe in the conviction that for us it would be different.
The archaeological details about Pompeii were fascinating, but I didn’t quite connect with the massive national guilt felt by Vita (perhaps you have to be South African to understand), but Vita’s feelings of displacement, “caught between identities,” were powerfully conveyed. Vita’s displacement, which was buried when she lived in America, floats to the surface when she returns to South Africa and she finds herself “still outside the country looking in” despite being incorporated into a white South African family who’ve managed to morph with the new political reality.
This is not a fast read and requires patience as the stories unfold. I mentioned in the first paragraph that this is a story about guilt, obsession, and regret, but it’s power that connects Royce and Vita–he has the money, the position, the influence, but she also has power which she has yet to understand. The thread concerning the power of placing our own narratives on to other people (easy to do when they are dead), is amplified through the stories of the dead at Pompeii, but it’s also a potential hazard when making documentaries which include human narratives. In one scene, two female student filmmakers naively film a BDSM segment in which the subject subverts their power and control, but conversely, there’s a scene in which Vita hesitates to place a black worker in the frame when making a film about wine-making. On some level, I suspect, she understands that making a film in which workers feature steals a certain power from her subjects. They participate, but do they choose to participate? And interestingly Vita’s relationships all seem to pivot on power.
This is an exquisitely written, cerebral, intelligent novel, bitter-sweet in its exploration of how we discover truths about ourselves when it’s often too late.