Lonely for company, Suzanne posts an ad in a Lonely Hearts section of the local newspaper. One of the respondents is Alpha Breville, a convict serving time in Stillwater Prison. When Suzanne asks about his crime, he tells her that he raped a woman. Suzanne responds by telling him that she was raped herself, when she was 16.
“We were two sides of a coin,” she says. And so begins an unusually perverse relationship …
THIEF is an emotionally complex novel. While it is told in the first person by a woman who has been the victim of a rape, Suzanne does not portray herself as a victim. In part that’s because the rape happened half a lifetime ago, and Suzanne has had many years to accommodate herself to the event and its consequences. The wound is no longer raw, the shock no longer fresh.
For the most part, however, the emotional complexity is the result of who Suzanne is, and her way of looking at the world. Certainly, being raped at a young age has coloured her perception of the world in a particular way, and very possibly contributes to the fact that in her personal relationships, she actively seeks out danger, or at least the potential for danger, and that she is drawn to the kind of man whom her friends consider unsuitable.
By the same token, Gibbon is at pains to point out that Suzanne was a strong-willed and assertive character before she was raped. She was sexually precocious, independent of thought, and grew up in an environment that taught her to value herself in terms of how others valued her sexually:
“So even if I was sixteen when Frank L---- raped me, I was a different sort of sixteen: not a virgin, in love with my own orgasms, already certain my main worth in the world was sexual … That’s what I mean when I say it was probably inevitable that some harm should come to me. At sixteen I so much wanted to be part of the adult world, I started pounding on the door. Not surprisingly, it let me in.”However, Gibbon does not make Suzanne’s rape an inevitable consequence of her sexual activity. In fact, she’s at pains to make the point that Suzanne’s rape was the consequence of her opening herself up emotionally to people, and that opening yourself up - given the environment she grew up in - almost inevitably meant doing so physically.
In another writer’s hands, Suzanne’s experience might well have resulted in her becoming a closed-off character, unable or unwilling to develop any kind of relationships with men, and harbouring revenge fantasies. Suzanne, however, has an entirely healthy appetite for sex and intimacy, not as a defence mechanism, but as the physical manifestation of Suzanne’s fascination with the human condition. While her relationship with Breville the convicted rapist initially and understandably offers her the opportunity to vent her spleen about her own experience in particular, and against the concept of rape in general (“I wanted to use Breville,” Suzanne says and we start to wonder who the ‘thief’ of the title really is), it’s not long before she finds her curiosity about Breville - who he was when he raped at 19 years old, and who he is now, after his time spent in prison - comes to dominate their exchanges. Letters give way to prison visits, and soon Suzanne and Reville are engaged in a sexually charged relationship.
THIEF has been criticised for the way in which Gibbon allows Suzanne, despite her experience, to move beyond that and develop a relationship with a rapist. That, however, is a very simplistic reading of the narrative. Gibbon does not set aside Suzanne’s rape; instead it remains a live issue throughout, and becomes a perverse kind of catalyst to a perverse kind of relationship. The novel is not a polemic nor a panacea; like all good novels, it offers up unique characters in a unique scenario, and sets in train a narrative that owes the reader nothing but the truth of its own logic.
What gives THIEF a cutting edge, of course, is the fact that Gibbon herself was raped as a 16-year-old. Indeed, a piece written in the New York Times in 2006, in which she speaks of ‘my rapist’, suggests that at least certain parts of the novel are semi-autobiographical. That experience, of course, is not enough to give Gibbon a free pass to write whatever she likes about rape and its consequences, particularly if what she writes can seem to empathise with a rapist. Writing about Breville’s formative years, for example, Gibbon has this to say close to the novel’s conclusion:
“I kept thinking back to the day I met Breville, when he told me the love of his mother and father and grandfather weren’t enough to help him, and to the day he told me he lost his virginity to his molesting, twelve-year-old cousin. I now understood just how fully he’d told me the truth. Nothing could have counteracted the sexual abuse, the years of underage drinking, the petty thievery, or the violence and chaos he’d lived within. Breville had begun a certain course so early on that his life could only follow one path.To suggest that a man can be driven down a life’s path that will inevitably lead to rape seems a dangerous thing to put into print, but again, it’s important to say that this is a novel, a work of fiction, and that Suzanne’s experience is unique to her.
“On the long drive home it became entirely clear to me that the surprising thing was not that Breville had raped someone when he was nineteen. The only surprise would have been if he had not become a rapist.”
In fact, both Gibbon and Suzanne constantly defy expectations. Despite her rape, Suzanne maintains a healthy attitude towards sex, and the pages are littered with graphic descriptions of sex, masturbation and orgasms. As a writer, Gibbon is at ease with employing a coarse vernacular when it comes to describing sex, including the liberal use of f-words and c-bombs.
There is also Suzanne’s unrepentant acknowledgement of her fascination with ‘unsuitable men’ - her ex-boyfriend, the dope-fiend Richaux; Breville the convicted rapist; Gabriel, the destitute and potentially dangerous cowboy she picks up after posting another ad in the Lonely Hearts pages.
THIEF might well have been an easier read had Suzanne learned to shy away from such men after being raped. It would also have been far less infuriating, challenging and thought-provoking. Anyone who reads THIEF for a conventional narrative arc ending in predictable catharsis will be sorely disappointed.
There is much more to THIEF than its central conceit, however. Gibbon writes with a quiet and understated assurance, rarely lurid in detail or flamboyant in description. Despite that, she is wonderfully adept and occasionally poetic in recreating Suzanne’s bucolic environment, particularly when describing the lake-side flora and fauna.
The lake itself is virtually a character in its own right. Suzanne swims every day, and comes to know the lake in all its manifestations. There is more than a hint that her dedication to swimming, and particularly the joy of floating, has to do with the cleansing properties of the experience, and there are times when the lake takes on the quality of amniotic fluid. That said, however, Gibbon is too clear-eyed a writer to give in to the lure of easy metaphor. “It was like water in a dream,” she writes at one point, going on to say: “The water felt like silk on my hands. No - it felt like water.”
There are caveats, of course, the main one being that the ‘cowboy’ character never really rings true. He is the counterpoint - or the potential counterpoint - to the incarcerated Breville, but apart from his aura of desolation, Suzanne never really explains her attraction to him, or why he should travel long distances to see her. “They were both ciphers,” Gibbon writes at one point about Breville and the cowboy, perhaps acknowledging that the cowboy is one of the few blatantly artificial constructions in a story that feels organically rooted in Suzanne’s unique experience of the world.
That said, Gibbon also makes the same point about Breville: “But the relationship I had with Breville was made up only of words, talk, and letters, and that was what made it artificial and false …” she writes. Their relationship is, on one level, utterly artificial and incongruous. By the same token, any novel is ‘made up only of words, talk, and letters’, and a reader’s relationship with a novel as a form of temporary reality is as artificial and incongruous as any of the relationships explored here.
Gibbon’s job, as a novelist, is to create a world so compelling as to allow we readers to immerse ourselves completely, regardless of whether or not we agree with the logic on which that world turns. In this she has succeeded brilliantly. - Declan Burke
Maureen Gibbon’s THIEF is published by Atlantic Books.