Review: Shannon Burnson Michael Sala

Swaying Ground: The Restorer by Michael Sala

Michael Sala’s second novel, The Restorer, approaches the experience of domestic violence from the perspective of two characters who endure and witness it. It can safely be called a topical novel, given the public interest in the issue over the last few years (see for instance the coverage here and here). The Restorer also revisits several of the themes that Sala explored in his superb fictional-autobiography, The Last Thread (2012). There, Sala portrays his relationships with two nasty paternal figures: Michaelis’ stepfather, Dirk, is often violent and threatens to kill him, while his biological father is sexually abusive and neglectful. Alongside this, Michaelis endures the precocious macho ferocity of his older brother, Con, and is witness to his mother’s relationship with yet another domineering man later in life.

Unlike Con, Michaelis is not a ‘manly’ child—at least not in the rough-and-tumble, working-class sense of the word. Con resorts to violence when it suits him, is athletically gifted and self-sufficient, and makes himself cold and distant whenever Dirk raises a hand against him. For Con, the conventions of working-class masculinity are a refuge and a weapon, while for Michaelis they are totally alien:

Michaelis should be used to getting hit, should be getting toughened up himself. But the only time a teacher tries to take him off to be caned, he collapses and has to be dragged along. His shirt tears at the sleeve. He shrieks and sobs. Others are watching; Michaelis doesn’t care. ‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ the teacher says. ‘Be a man about it!’ Michaelis makes himself a dead weight on the ground. The teacher gives up in disgust and walks off. He picks himself up. He has lost the opportunity to be a man about it… He wipes his hands on his shorts, feeling the eyes of other kids on the hot surface of his face.

Meanwhile, the significant men in Michaelis’ life embody that manliness in damaging ways, and this leaves him fearful, as an adult, that he might replicate their abuses.

The Restorer is a more conventional fiction, but it shares much with its predecessor. Both books feature a mother who is a nurse and a father/stepfather who is a capable carpenter. The Last Thread is partly set in Newcastle, while The Restorer is almost wholly set there. Both deal with domestic tensions and cleavages, and grapple with the perceived and real brutalities committed by (predominantly working-class) men and boys against children and women. Both portray boys who fail to live up to their fathers’ standards of masculinity, and mothers whose decisions are wholly perplexing—and infuriating—to their children. Both novels also draw attention to the threads of physical and psychological damage that can extend through generations, and the difficult choices associated with repairing or preventing such damage.

The bulk of The Restorer is written from the perspective of two admirably imagined protagonists, Freya and Maryanne. The action takes place in Newcastle in 1989—the year of the Newcastle earthquake, Tiananmen Square, a fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the fall of the Berlin wall, and spectacularly high interest rates. The chief protagonist, Freya, is a fourteen-year-old school girl, and Maryanne is her thirty-four-year-old mother. Freya’s father, Roy, has brought them all—including Freya’s younger brother, Daniel—to Newcastle for the purpose of restoring and selling a severely fire-damaged terrace house.

We first encounter the family through the eyes of Richard, their neighbour, on the day of their arrival. (Richard’s before-and-after perspective serves to frame the drama.) Maryanne initially appears uncertain or unwilling to enter their new home. She has a ‘slight frame’, unlike Roy, who is ‘broad, muscular, with stains under the arm of his t-shirt, and a way of moving like his hands were the heaviest part of him.’ Roy is registered as both ‘hard’ and potentially dangerous throughout, but these initial observations are insistently ominous. We learn that he is ‘the kind of man that Richard enjoyed looking at, but only from a distance’. The narrator then hints at the climax of the novel: ‘There was something about them, the way they were standing there, that Richard would remember later, in the gloom of an early morning, with the jostle of neighbours and the blue and red lights washing across everything.’

We wonder, in these early pages, why Roy is hostile to Richard’s neighbourly advances, why Daniel is slow to respond to questions and instructions (and why a sudden change in weather makes his head hurt), why Freya is embittered, and why Maryanne is wary of their new circumstances yet over-eager to make the best of things.

My old high school teachers would love The Restorer, and not merely because it portrays teachers in a generous light. They’ll love it because Sala employs foreshadowing and symbolism with a grim deliberateness—often heavy-handed, occasionally subtle—that lends itself perfectly to the critical strategies prevalent in senior high school English classes. Perhaps Sala’s intention is to dramatize the common idea that observers should have sensed that a major event was looming, but the result, for me, is tedious.

During one of her English classes, Freya’s charismatic, caring and wise teacher ponders Shakespeare: ‘Caesar, he gets all of these warnings, but he still goes down to the forum alone. Why? Write this down. Caesar dies because he can’t stop being Caesar. Discuss.’ Real-life teachers will no doubt scrawl down an apt variation of this question seconds after reading it. The family’s first night in the house coincides with a storm(!) and we learn, early on, that Freya ‘read about Prometheus and thought of Mum, the strange mixture of hope and suffering with which she lived her life, the way she never gave up on anything, even when it hurt her.’

Maryanne’s uneasiness manifests in poignant symbolic imaginings: ‘she imagined herself trapped in here, in this basement, and it was filling, filling with water that was seeping up through the fine cracks in the concrete.’ The notion that Newcastle—and therefore the family home—is built on fragile and cracked foundations due to careless mining practices is pointedly reiterated, but in case readers fail to grasp the metaphor Sala makes it explicit: ‘What [Maryanne] remembered was that [she and Roy] used to play at fighting, tease each other in the way that only worked when foundations were stable or fresh or untested, when the space between you wasn’t ridded with old wounds.’ As Maryanne ponders these cracks in the relationship, ‘The ground felt as if it were swaying beneath her.’

Roy, for his part, is presented as a storm-like force—loud, uncontrollable, and violent: ‘The front door slammed shut. Dad was stamping his feet in the hall and coughing. His work boots dropped on the wooden floor one after the other. A flash of lightning blazed through the kitchen and a rumble shook the ground.’ On other occasions, he is like an animal, more brute than human. Freya ponders ‘that smell he had that she couldn’t describe but it was his alone and it reminded her of an animal that did not belong in a confined space,’ and Maryanne sees a ‘big, hulking ape-like mass…’

Only resolutely passive or sheltered readers will fail to guess what kind of man Roy is within the first fifteen pages of The Restorer, and many will also guess the probable cause of those flashing red and blue lights. But Sala can’t possibly be interested in concealing the direction of the drama —especially given the novel’s telling references to Julius Cesar and Henry the Eighth. He is too serious a writer—and domestic and family violence too serious a subject—to indulge in playful misdirection. From its opening pages, The Restorer is a tragedy waiting to happen. Freya gives voice to this feeling near the novel’s climax:

Dad was going to lose it soon. She knew this and she could tell that Mum knew it too. Everyone knew; no one could do anything about it, and wasn’t that what life was—knowing things and not admitting it until it was too late, looking the other way. Everyone was waiting. To see—what next? Like it was all up to Dad.

Freya’s analysis is proven right when Maryanne, finally convinced that Roy is a danger to them all, attempts to provoke him: ‘She had wanted him to snap one last time,’ she realises, ‘so she could take the children and walk out …’ Maryanne is locked into the dangerous ritual of waiting for Roy—the man of the house—to determine the course of their fate.

Despite the explicit symbolism and foreshadowing, Sala manages a surprising dramatic tension. He achieves this by anchoring the reader to Freya’s and Maryanne’s perspectives. The limited third-person narration conveys their experience intimately and elegantly. Freya’s grievances at home and at school, her insecurities and conflicting impulses (all of which generate opportunities to re-enact or reject her parents’ fate), are strikingly authentic, as is Maryanne’s spiralling confusion, her sense of helplessness, and the disjunction between her public face—as a capable and strong-willed nurse—and her domestic meekness. Their every decision and reaction is understandable, despite the resulting dangers. For instance, Maryanne ponders her failure to report a significant episode of violence to authorities:

Looking back on it later, there was so much of it she couldn’t understand. Why hadn’t she told the doctor everything? It would have ruined Roy’s life; that was one thing. And that was something you did not do lightly to another person. She couldn’t anyway…. It was complicated and difficult to describe, and she loved him, God she loved him so much, even when she was angry or scared, there remained some fundamental belief in his potential that had become part of who she was, that pulsed inside her like a second heart, that kept hope moving through her, so that everything needing to be nourished somehow received just enough.

For some readers, Maryanne’s response to Roy’s violence will seem inadequate and negligent, but Sala shows (I think convincingly) how strong and complex emotions can lead smart and capable people to make bad decisions.

In Maryanne’s case, abuse is bound up with sex and intimacy. She recalls that she’d detected a childlike helplessness in Roy following his first act of domestic violence, after which they made love ‘in a fierce, tender, complete way that was nothing like what they’d done before, as if they’d each revealed parts of themselves that they’d been holding back, as if now there was nothing left for them to hold back.’ Roy’s indiscretion becomes ‘the dark joke that the two of them shared, that set them apart from ordinary people.’ It makes their love seem more intense and more ‘real’ to Maryanne—and we eventually learn why this might be so. In fact, Sala’s protagonists are models of psychological cause and effect. Everything they do and think is explicable in the end.

For her part, Freya feels like ‘a combination of all of Mum and Dad’s worst features, a mutation’—and is hyperconscious of, and anxious about, the way that boys address and observe her in the street, at school, or at the beach. Sala conveys her inner turmoil in measured and astute increments, until her Hero’s Journey reaches an apt climax.

The portrayal of Maryanne is more fractured and enigmatic, but her essential experiences and concerns are neatly fleshed out. For her, Roy is ‘…all charm when he wanted to be, larger than life, and of course you wanted him to be too, and did anything you could to see it, to keep seeing it, because what was the world when that was taken out of you, that hope, that desire?’ Without him, Maryanne is overwhelmed by the apparent formlessness and weightlessness of her life.

Sala’s use of the third-person subjective point of view is occasionally so closely fixed to his characters’ perceptions that it almost gives way to a first-person rendering, as when Freya watches Roy beat a man while they wait for a traffic jam to clear: ‘Dad’s fist made a blur. The man crumpled. Dad hit him again and again, sharp, precise blows, like he was building something, then he stood over him and spat on his hair. Another man got out further down the road behind them. Dad turned.’ This momentary ambiguity permits Sala to portray their experiences more directly, and affectingly, without defying the overall narrative logic.

But this logic is undermined at times. In the final paragraph of the second chapter, the narrator describes the smells and noises of the house: ‘ground-up shells, rotting wood, seaweed, the husks of stupefied marine animals, endless other fragments, all of it caught up in the endless motion of the waves. But by then there was no one awake to hear.This last line abruptly unveils an independent and free-floating narrating consciousness who can perceive and describe aspects of the fictional world without the anchorage of a character’s perceptions. Such a presence unsettles our understanding of exactly who is perceiving what, and when.

Sala takes a comparatively minimalist approach to his depiction of Roy, who we encounter from the outside, as Freya or Maryanne or Richard see him. The Restorer is not Roy’s story, and Sala withholds his talent for characterisation deliberately, sketching a rudimentary background that is then augmented by Freya’s and Maryanne’s observations. For Freya, ‘He had a way of staring ahead, glancing at her side-on when they spoke, as if he didn’t want to admit that he was having a conversation.’ When Maryanne tells him that he shouldn’t use words like ‘pretty’ because ‘They never sound right coming from you,’ we get a sense of the version of masculinity he embodies, with its repudiation of softness and fear of being vulnerable (both protagonists note that feeling weak is intolerable to him). We know from the outset that Roy can be charming and alluring, but he is mostly detestable, controlling, paranoid, egotistical and pathetic. Readers are not, at any stage, coaxed into developing a sympathetic—or even neutral—interest in him; instead, all of the signs point to Roy being a bad guy. When Freya claims that she wishes him dead near the beginning of the novel, we trust that she has every good reason for wishing so.

But we are given sufficient basic details to speculate about the underlying cause of Roy’s violence. Maryanne recalls Roy telling her about his childhood:

the bitter, determined way his old man had always used both words and his hands to hack at everyone he should have cared for, the fact that Roy had learned to forgive him for it, because they’d only had each other, the death of his mother when she was barely formed in his memory, and the stony, empty pathways that led from one part of his childhood to the next.

This rushed, listing sentence is striking in a novel that is otherwise evenly-paced and delicately written. The manipulative thrust of his disclosures—‘the fact that Roy had learned to forgive him for it, because they’d only had each other’—overwhelms any sympathy we might have for him. It also discourages readers from connecting Roy’s urge to control Maryanne, his irrational suspicions, and fear of losing her to that early loss of his mother, or to see his hostile relationship with his son (and apparent lack of friends) as an extension of his father’s abuse.

All of this is notable because Sala does employ this kind of basic, psychological reasoning elsewhere—as when he lingers over a shocking incident in Maryanne’s childhood (the sort of thing that Roy presumably experienced more often in his) and imbues it with a deep and affecting explanatory power. Because Roy tells Maryanne the story of his childhood in order to justify his behaviour, most right-minded readers will follow Sala’s cues and reject its significance outright. A grim history does not excuse bad conduct as an adult, and overt manipulation is always repulsive. But I’m inclined to think that Roy’s explanation is not necessarily invalidated by its gross misuse. Understanding reprehensible behaviour is not the same as justifying it, and if a single childhood trauma can shed light on Maryanne’s compulsions, then the death of a mother, combined with prolonged exposure to violence and abuse, can explain Roy’s as well.

The fact that we don’t have direct access to Roy’s thoughts and feelings makes perfect formal sense, but given that those revelations serve to cement Maryanne’s feelings of intimacy and loyalty to her partner (‘These were things he’d never told another human being. She’d walked around with the glow of that night for days afterwards.’), that single-sentence-sprint is intriguing. A character like Maryanne would almost certainly contemplate the nature and impact of Roy’s account, frequently and in depth. So why is Sala so brisk?

Readers are kept as far removed from Roy’s experience as possible, even when it means limiting access to Maryanne’s. As with the violent males of The Last Thread, understanding is withheld. More than simply absent, Roy’s point-of-view appears to be taboo. Such men are, implicitly, unworthy of imaginative attention. In place of an inner life, Roy has muscles, and those muscles are integral to Sala’s portrayal: ‘He was wearing a blue t-shirt that clung tight around his biceps, the material dark with sweat under his arms and on his back.’ ‘The muscles in his shoulders shifted.’ ‘He floated there, the water up to his tanned neck, pulling back with the next wave to reveal the muscular beginnings of his shoulders.’ ‘But his legs were muscular, his calves knotted and thick, and there was still a feel to him as if he might burst into energetic motion at any moment, the king lion under his tree.’ ‘…that cord of muscle spring up in his neck…’ ‘The muscles in his arms rippled across one another and he held his hands in front of him.’ While the quality of Roy’s physical presence is an important part of the novel, a touch more subtlety and variety of expression might have gone a long way.

As with Dirk in The Last Thread, working-class physicality carries brutish associations. Roy’s muscles, his talent with his hands, and his fluency with tools, constitute a threat. His distinctive physique — ‘His muscular body was flushed and shiny from the heat of the shower. Only his belly stuck out a little, a grotesque, hairy barrel’ — is invoked to signal domineering and dangerous qualities. Indeed, with scarce exceptions the generic working-class boys and men of Sala’s Newcastle are singularly unappealing and frightening, especially when contrasted with other males in the novel, like Freya’s relatively sensitive ‘alternative’ friend, her attentive teacher, her shop-keeper employer, and Richard — the man-of-leisure next door — all of whom are approachable, generous, and unthreatening. If there is a tolerable construction of maleness in Sala’s world, it has a strikingly middle-class flavour. In fact, The Restorer’s nice guys bear an uncanny resemblance to the kinds of men who are likely to read the novel that they are in.

The Restorer is dramatically immersive, thematically confronting and — despite its flaws — moving. Like The Last Thread, it is in large part about difficult reckonings with family histories, and the challenge of wresting back control of a precariously positioned life. Sala highlights what I take to be a core moral of the story insistently (I counted three iterations of it from the mouths of three different characters), but perhaps good advice is worth repeating. For most readers, the skilful characterisation will outweigh all instances of heavy-handedness. I only hope that in future treatments of similar themes the vile men are friendly-seeming white collar workers who patronise the arts. I hear they exist. After all, what use is a topical novel unless its readers are made to feel uncomfortably close to—and complicit in—the issue it addresses?