Review: The Words For Her

Reviewed by Dionne Christian

Author: Thomasin Sleigh. Reviewer: Dionne Christian.The Words For Her is one of the most inventive, provocative and layered novels released this year. In the world Thomasin Sleigh carefully constructs, she builds on uncertainties and ideas to pose successive new and tricky considerations. June 2023 release

In 1944, anarchist philosopher George Woodcock declared that [sic] man lived by the tyranny of the clock: ‘… the movement of the clock sets the tempo [of] men's lives - they become the servant of the concept of time which they themselves have made, and are held in fear, like Frankenstein by his own monster. The domination of man by the creation of man is even more ridiculous than the domination of man by man.’

We can only guess what Woodcock (along with his eventual friend George Orwell) may have made of the other human-made tyrannies that now dominate our lives. One of these tyrannies is at the heart of Thomasin Sleigh’s astutely observed and even more cleverly written third novel, The Words For Her.

Sleigh’s overarching theme is that we’re now controlled by the ‘tyranny of the image,’ hyper-focused on creating and curating pictures of ourselves so we’re always picture perfect. This frenetic preoccupation means we’ve forgotten how to truly see one another, diminishing opportunities for authentic connection and altering how we remember, communicate and relate to one another.

Our changed brains mean memories are no longer held in body and soul but on phones and devices and once images alter, we can’t hold things – like people, even our nearest and dearest - in a time or place, look forward or back. As one character says, ‘It is a sickness, this obsession with images of ourselves.’ However, in The Words For Her the sickness – if that’s what you want to call it - arises when, for unknown reasons, people start randomly disappearing from images taken by cameras, phones or any device with a lens.

These disappeared are known as gaps and all over the world their number is exponentially increasing. What’s causing it?  Is it contagious and does it hurt to disappear from images but live on In Real Life? How might the gaps change things now that they can’t be captured on camera? Will they become a threat? How do you manage, as an individual and society, when ‘things that held the world together are falling apart?’

That’s the speculative fiction part of The Words For Her but the novel is grounded in recognisable, relatable realism and a subtle touch of (not kitsch) Kiwiana – fish ‘n’ chips, sausages with tomato sauce, days at the beach.

Jodie Pascoe is a solo mum who’s one broken cell phone away from a hard right onto Struggle Street. In another life she may have been a psychologist but instead of continuing university studies, she returned home to coastal Whakatāne to help her ageing parents. They needed a little extra support, given that her dad was blinded in an industrial accident when Jodie and her feckless older brother, Guy, were teenagers.

The first hints that there’s more to Jodie than may meet the eye come slowly.  She declares that Johnny, her ex and the father to her beloved daughter Jade, ‘doesn’t get to be described.’ It’s an intriguing choice of words.  She also reminisces about time spent with her dad through ‘colouring’ for him – using her own words to describe the minutiae of the world.

Rather than resort to descriptive devices, Sleigh keeps the language straightforward and to the point.  As Jodie says, ‘Take something, hold it up, look closely, and find the right words.  Not fancy words. Just the right words. The right words had a power in them.’ Her dad’s is a world of words, not pictures and he uses “old-fashioned” ways, like direct conversation and listening to the radio, to navigate his way around and through it.  Indeed, there’s an amusing moment when, on talkback, callers discuss what’s happened now that the captain of the All Blacks has become a gap.

‘The tone on the radio was mean. The host was trying to keep things civil but mean-sounding men kept calling and accusing Patterson of lacking leadership, letting himself go, of not playing in the “spirit of the game”.’

(Of course once sportspeople can no longer be filmed, there goes televised professional sport – and the way it can act as an opiate for the masses. You can say the same about TV, films and music videos, too.)

But Jodie’s way with words extends to something possibly more sinister. She can ‘shade’ as well as ‘colour.’ A more detailed explanation might be a spoiler but as the world grows ever more chaotic, Jodie’s mum asks, ‘Did you do this, Jodie, Did you start this?’ Jodie doesn’t know – but there are mysterious others lurking on the margins of the story who might believe she played a part in it.

This introduces to the story an element of threat and pace, just when it needs it to keep the slow burning action smouldering. Jodie must now protect Jade from those who may be watching them; finding an old friend is perhaps one way to get some clarity but Sleigh never provides easy answers and The Words For Her is all the more satisfying for it.

In the world Sleigh carefully constructs, she builds on uncertainties and ideas to pose successive new and tricky considerations. Initially, disappearing from images may not seem like a big deal but in a culture as visual as ours and, more pointedly, dependent on surveillance, it soon becomes apparent that going unseen is serious with far-reaching, possibly frightening implications.

Things start small and personal.  When newborns are born as gaps, and can’t be captured in photographs, Jodie ponders, ‘What would it be like if the baby had never seen itself in an image? Would the baby understand itself? Would it feel whole or real or normal?’

Sleigh expands the story from the personal to the political. If you can’t be captured by a lens-based device, can you still do your job if it’s more difficult to track, trace and monitor you on CCTV? Should you be allowed into shops and public places if you can’t be remotely watched? Is there, as gaps start to suggest, a freedom in no longer being beholden to an ‘image, to the weight of it, to the weight of having to generate it all the time, to that immense burden and alienation…’

Jodie’s mum, the family’s genealogist, remarks that there is little trace in the historical record of women – ‘all the men in my research have that much more information about them, but the women, I often know hardly anything about them.’ If people disappear from images, will their stories be lost or, more ominously, manipulated? Forget about history being written by the victors; it’s now those who photograph it – or more to the point, manipulate images – and therefore can re-write the past and shape the future for whatever ends they may choose.

In a neat circularity, Sleigh ends The Words For Her on the more intimate and personal, but it’s still political. Jodie is a mother growing evermore desperate as she tries to save her child and when she comes face to face with a possible pursuer, she realises:  ‘He had never been observed. He had never had to run, in the dark, not sure what was coming, who was there, who had seen him, who was watching him.  He did the looking and he looked at whatever the fuck he wanted.’

The Words For Her is one of the most inventive, provocative and layered novels released this year.  Read it and long after you finish, you’ll be reconsidering the need for – and the uses of – that selfie or group shot.  Who’s looking?  And what are they looking for?

 Reviewed by Dionne Christian

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