(Note: those looking for Mallu men, please go to Girl Talk.)
Imagine you’re a woman who was raped about ten years ago, when you were a teenager, by someone you knew and that someone was never arrested. You’ve grown up now. No one looks at you and thinks there’s anything wrong. You have a job, you have relationships. Now imagine, you’ve put a personal ad (you’re in America, it’s a tad bit less creepy to do that there than it is here) and one of the people who writes in is a convict who is serving a sentence for rape. Do you write back? The heroine of Maureen Gibbon’s “Thief” does. He’s in a high-security prison and he’s lonely. She’s free and she wants to mess with his head.
“Thief” isn’t the literary equivalent of a punch in the gut. It’s sophisticated torture. It finds your pleasure points, kneads them into comfortable softness and then sticks something sharp into that precise spot so that you feel it ripping apart every screaming cell. As you might have guessed, it’s a love story.
The novel is tiny, slim as a fat finger. Gibbon’s narrator tells you the story in first person. She sounds detached, as if observing herself, but from within rather than from the outside. Her voice doesn’t waver and even when she talks about herself in the grip of some emotion — lust, fear, sadness, whatever — and losing control, her storyteller self is calm. That’s what is most unnerving. She’s watching herself hurtle towards a black hole but she does nothing other than evenly describe the scene as she rushes through it. She’s lost control but she does nothing, other than tell us her story. “Thief” is brilliantly written. When I finished reading it, I remember thinking that only a woman could have written it. Not because men can’t be raped or anything quite so concrete but because Gibbon knows and writes about a need that seems to be curiously feminine. A need to cling on to fairytales. Some time later, I was chatting with a friend about “Thief” and he snorted, “So guys don’t want happy endings? Because we watch p*rn and don’t get drawn to photos of cute babies? Please.”
I don’t know how to explain it because of course it’s not quite as simplistic as that (at least I hope it isn’t). But there’s something about women’s expectations of relationships that is incredibly resilient. They’re like balloons that you can’t burst, until perhaps the balloon looks more like a pincushion or a bit of cloth with its embroidery taken out. This is why women date and marry men with this absurd idea that they will “change” them. In Suzanne, the heroine of “Thief”, you see this dogged determination to not see the danger that the men she dates pose to her emotional well-being. She wants a certain kind of companionship from them; she craves certain sensations, and she has the imagination to conjure these up if they aren’t being provided by the men. So much so that soon enough, it’s difficult to sift through her storytelling and remember your own objectivity as a reader. I found myself rooting for her to ‘date’ the convict, so what if he’s a rapist and he’s manipulating her with letters, phone calls and silences?
I’d like to hope that few will be able to relate intimately with Suzanne but Gibbon makes it easy. Having thought about it, I’d like to believe a man could have written “Thief” but I think he’d find it difficult to tap into that darkness and write about it with such elegant restraint. In any case, whether or not you’ve ever been a victim, most of us know what it’s like to be desperately alone. What happens to Suzanne is both incredible as well as credible and it feels unflinchingly honest despite the occasional incredulity, which is an unusual and unnerving experience for a reader. You read a page and thinking, “Who does that?” and two lines later, you find yourself thinking, “Yes, I know how that feels” or “Yes, that makes sense.”
It was easy for me at least to relate to Suzanne’s desperate need to see a man not as he was but in the way she wanted him. Although I don’t have any scientific reason to say this, but that need to fit a person into the coffin of your needs (rather than finding the person who fits the box or building the box to fit the person) is very feminine, to my experience. Armchair, revolving chair and chaise-longue psychologists, please feel free to go into whirling dervish mode at my using the word “coffin”.
The language is simple but truly poetic in parts and often funny. Yes, amidst all the raping and coyote-howl-inducing sex, Gibbon managed to chuck in some humour too. The chapters are short and thank god for that, because once I started the book, I needed to finish it. There’s a sense of danger that surrounds the book like a fog. Suzanne is no wilting damsel but everywhere around her, there seems to be something baring its fangs in the dark. When she swims in the river on her own. When her landlord is unnecessarily nice to her. When a one-night stand comes back for more. When the rapist leaves her alone. Ironically, none of these actually threaten her. The hand holding a knife to her neck is her own, its fairytale-fed muscles rippling; and I read compulsively to see how deeply the blade would slide into the skin.