Studies have shown that reading literary fiction increases a reader’s ability to empathize. In her first books to be published in the U.S., Giller Prize-nominated British author Kathy Page puts that theory to a rigorous test. Would you like to spend 300 pages in the mind of a murderer? How about fourteen stories replete with the vengeful whispers from those vanquished by the injustices of globalization? In both the novel Alphabet and the story collection Paradise and Elsewhere, Page demonstrates that she is a master provocateur, unafraid to ask unpleasant questions about contemporary society, even if she risks being didactic.
Originally published in the UK and Canada in 2004, Alphabet is set in a high-security men’s penitentiary during the end of Margaret Thatcher’s reign. Simon Austen is serving a life sentence for strangling his girlfriend. Twenty-one and barely literate, he develops a hunger for learning in order to combat prison boredom. He learns to read and write. He completes courses that give him the equivalent of a high school education. He begins to answer newspaper ads under a false name from women seeking pen pals. To circumvent the prison censors, he purchases help from a fellow inmate using cigarettes and batteries. Page, who spent a year as a Writer-in-Residence in a men’s penitentiary, does not spare the reader from the cruel horror show that prison is intended to be. Eventually, Austen drops his false identities and sends out letters of increasing honesty. His foray into confessional correspondence can be read in a number of ways: as desperation, as self-education, and as a melancholy search for connection—just as it is for those who purchase newspaper ads and walk around free in the outside world.
When his letters are discovered by the prison regime, they are so surprisingly articulate and intelligent that Simon is chosen to participate in a psychiatric program meant to help address his past, ameliorate his dysfunctional relationships with women, and prepare him, possibly, to one day be free. When Simon develops feelings for his psychiatrist Bernadette, the reader glimpses how far Simon’s emotional intelligence has come in one of his letters:
You are turning me inside out.
When I am with you I feel as if I could become the best of me that has been hidden for so long, and I burn with wanting to. I feel I could pass through an eye of a needle.
So how is the reader supposed to feel about Simon Austen, the murderer-cum-tortured-poet? Page thoroughly captures the voice of a man who has dissociated himself from his crime. She challenges the reader to forget and forgive the crime’s brutal nature and empathize with this bottled-up young man struggling to find the language to confront his disturbed psyche. Despite being repeatedly humiliated and victimized within the prison system, Simon doesn’t want to leave. After growing up in failed foster homes, prison is the best home Simon has ever had.
I could not help but feel deeply sympathetic to the narrator—a testament to Page’s skill. But the reading experience was harrowing. I’m interested to see what the reception to Alphabet will be in the US, where over half of the states have legalized some form of capital punishment. As a society, Americans have by and large accepted that the worst offenders in our legal system do not deserve rehabilitation—certainly not murderers of young women like Simon Austen. And yet the central question of Alphabet, both for society and for Simon himself, is whether he deserves to be rehabilitated.
In Paradise and Elsewhere, Page again asks the big questions, dramatizing interactions between modern societies and less developed ones to address issues of globalization, climate change, and feminism. The stories are very short. Many are under ten pages. They exist between genres, as Page leaps from realism to fable and back, often from page to page. The writing is totally distinct from Alphabet—a testament to Page’s range. In the 3-page gem “Lak-ha,” a family is dropped in the midst of a desert where an ancient tree stands. The wife dies of dehydration, her last tears wetting the wood, making it fibrous enough to braid into rope. A stranger arrives by sea and asks the starving widower for the rope’s price. In this amazing passage, Page hops from the mythic to the real, evoking the rise of civilizations:
Every year more strangers came by sea bringing food and goods in exchange for Hetlas rope.
This explains the name of our village, Lak-ha, which some say means in the old language, “The place where the bargain was struck.” Others say other things. They ask, did the woman know the purpose of her weeping? Who invented the Hetlas rope—the woman, the man, the stranger, Fate? But I say forget it. Come inside. We have everything now: television, internet, iPod, cellphone, denim jeans, Barbie doll, same as you.
Paradise and Elsewhere, like Alphabet, is about society’s fraying ability to connect with people. In Alphabet, strangers try to connect via the written letter. But in Paradise and Elsewhere, people try to connect through money, through material goods, and through perceived power dynamics. In “Saving Grace,” a news crew travels to a rural town to film a famous soothsayer only to find that what she has to say is not what they want to hear.
“I do apologize. Your fame has travelled, so to speak. Can we please watch you work?” asked Libby, smiling as hard as she could. “We’ll pay,” she added.
“I know that. Stay as long as you like. That won’t be long. None of your plans will come to fruit, you’ll fail completely.” The woman’s baleful stare seemed to enfold them all like a thick, stifling blanket. “You think you’re lucky to live in the cities. You think it’s kinder there and people are more generous, but that’s only because they’ve got more. You’re stupid, and you’re deeply mean. You don’t like your friends drinking too much of your wine. You count up favours and drop people if they don’t pay you back. You’re jealous of your sister Phil.”
“Saving Grace,” like most of the stories in Page’s collection, wears its themes like loud clothes. Each story is a cage fight between the rural and the urban, the tourist and the touristed, the modern and the ancient. In today’s increasingly polarized society, Page’s ironic paradises, so dense with vital questions, will echo and leave you wondering how you measure up to Page’s expansive empathies. Are you like her characters: only able to empathize selectively with so much day-to-day injustice on the planet?