“Not perfect, but highly entertaining” – In the Seeing Hands of Others by Nat Ogle

IMG_9Dec2021at003305Corina Slate is a phrenology nurse on a dialysis ward, and the primary carer for her Japanese mother, who has stage IV breast cancer. She’s also a rape survivor: her attacker was her ex-boyfriend, Cameron Struth, who was exonerated of all charges after it all came to trial. In the Seeing Hands of Others traces the events leading up to the assault, as well as its lingering after-effects on both Corina and (arguably) Cameron, via a series of found documents: Corina’s blog entries, word documents and emails lifted from Cameron’s computer, transcripts of text messages, and scans of police records. Through all this, we witness Corina’s struggle to maintain friendships and relationships, including those with both her dying mother and her troubled younger brother, Hiro; we learn too, of her short-lived but loving relationship with Cameron’s (also troubled) brother, Sam, which began as Cameron was pulling away from her and ended with Sam’s suicide several weeks before the rape.

That’s a lot of plot: the rape and trial, the affair with Sam, the slow death of Corina’s mother, a sub-plot involving Hiro and their father, another revolving around an anorexic patient on Corina’s ward, and then all of Cameron’s various goings-on—his own past relationships (sexual and familial), his job, his ambitions as an actor, his descent into (perhaps) madness (more on this later). But there’s also an abundance of theme: as an immediate talking point we’ve got, of course, the lack of credibility accorded to rape victims by the legal system (in reality, it would hardly be surprising if Cameron had never been brought anywhere near an actual trial), plenty about parent/child and sibling relationships, as well as racialised identity, but the really major theme here is care.

Corina is a carer—both a nurse and an unofficial carer for her dying parent—and, as a survivor, but also simply as a human being, a person in need of care. The care Corina gets, however, insofar as she gets any, is either perfunctory (the legal system), short-lived (Sam) or ill-expressed (her mother, her brother). As a nurse, though, the care she offers her patient, Ali, gives her a framework for her own eventual movement towards healing; at home, too, her mother’s increasing vulnerability and need of Corina’s care allows them to draw closer than ever before, even as her mother’s life nears its end. Cameron, in contrast, does not or cannot either offer or provide care: as one acquaintance notes, it’s always all about him. His lack of care for Corina is most vividly exemplified in the rape itself, but his own account of their relationship and its end suggests too that he saw her only as a function of his own desires rather than as a being deserving of care in her own right: he describes it as a ‘meaningful relationship’ that worked because ‘we didn’t really need each other’ – this isn’t, as you can imagine, how Corina sketched it out. Cameron describes his distress after the rape accusation as being exacerbated by his lack of support system: he relied, he tells the crisis team, on his brother for ‘emotional support’ (care!); elsewhere, though, his mother portrays this as a bullying relationship, and blames Cameron for Sam’s death. Cameron is isolated from his family: his mum, long before Sam’s death, will not engage with him. It’s perhaps a minor spoiler to note that Corina emerges more intact at the end of the novel than Cameron: Ogle is suggesting, then, that if anything is to save us, no matter the damage, it is care—empathic human connection.

Nothing to argue with there, right? And there really is plenty to admire in this debut novel, particularly the way Ogle manages the intricate weaving of these themes and plots (care, love, loss, hurt; rape, eating disorders, mental illness, etc). It’s also formally intriguing: unlikely as it sounds, he owes a debt to Stephen King, whose Carrie is also a collage of found documents that explores trauma and a lack of care. The police records are particularly compelling: Ogle’s characters emerge here unguarded in a way that’s both revealing and tender.

The collage form wasn’t entirely convincing, though: Corina’s blog entries, in their novelistic lyricism, their detailed rendering of dialogue, and their depth of descriptive detail, didn’t read credibly as blog entries. Wouldn’t this level of disclosure, even pseudonymously, breach some sort of medical code? Wouldn’t she worry that her boss or family might find the entries, as indeed does Ali? Cameron’s entries introduce us to him via a series of recounted ‘happenings’ that read very much like Patrick Bateman’s outtakes, though a Bateman who isn’t hallucinating: within hours of his arrest, Cameron is typing up his delight at having hoodwinked the police and explaining how he uses his acting skills to take on various personas to get what he can out of a given situation as he prowls the night-time streets of London. Like Corina’s sections, the question of authenticity arises: surely he might worry about the police finding these semi-confessions? Why would he type it all up in the first place?

One possible answer here is that Cameron is presented as potentially suffering from what sounds like, but isn’t identified as, schizophrenia: his downfall later is then arguably less a result of his world having been ruined by Corina’s accusation, but more a result of a condition never fully disclosed —and made more poignant by his parents’ neglect, particularly in contrast to their care for the depressed Sam. Perhaps Cameron is as much a victim as Corina? But an explanation that reduces Cameron’s actions to a function of an illness feels dissatisfying: because all we ever see of Cameron is the liar, the manipulative genius, it feels like a reduction of the illness itself.

The novel is treading a line, then, between wanting to fully explore the characters’ inner lives and wanting to pursue this documentary format: the format is interesting, and certainly apt in terms of discussing a crime that’s so often considered in terms of hearsay and circumstantial evidence, but we would nonetheless venture that a more traditional presentation, while still combined with the police scans, would have allowed the writer more creative scope in exploring the characters.

Any Cop?: A clever take on a familiar story — not perfect, but highly entertaining all the same.

Valerie O’Riordan

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