This novel. Oh this novel. It rattles like a freight train. It kept me up at night. It made my thoughts frantic, made me wish I could write the review before I had finished, just so I could exorcise the influence of it.
In other words, it is impossible for me to approach this in anything other than a deeply personal way. I can’t help but ask myself am I like the Green Girl, Ruth? In what ways am I like and unlike her?
Stop, take a breath. To explain, this novel is the story of Ruth, an American girl living and working in London. Ruth works in retail, in a department store called ‘Horrids’ – not subtle. Nothing about this book is subtle. It is didactic and impassioned and cynical and despairing and utterly, utterly compelling.
The pull, the blood, the cry.
The agony of becoming.
I gaze down upon her. She is without form, and void, and darkness upon the face of the deep. Cast in the likeness of her creator. I give birth to an orphan girl.
Now I must name her. Ruth, a hopeful name. No, maybe not Ruth. Perhaps Julie or Kathy. Ahh, that’s it. Julie or Kathy. No, no. Ruth. She is a Ruth. She is Ruth.
I can’t see her. I squint, steady: nothing. I cannot ressurect her. Who is this girl?
I look at a Diane Arbus photograph of a young Mia Farrow. Perhaps this is Ruth. My actress. I try to trace her outline. I learn her curves. The slightest bit of flesh caught in between strap and armpit. The shadow of a line down her stomach, like a bisected butterfly.
This is how the book opens, with the author, the authorial voice pulling her character into being from nothingness. It’s that kind of level of assurance. Throughout, this voice will single out Ruth, hold her up for examination, pity her, will her to break down in tears, as if the power over this character is incomplete, as if she has a formless, unknowable sort of autonomy. Film characters are brought up as points of reference not only by the authorial voice but by the characters themselves, in dialogue and thought and performance, seeking to align themselves with the ingenues of French cinema, the doe-eyed and sharp-tongued vamps of golden-era Hollywood. They are place holders, glitter-and-sequin-and-fairydust sprinklers, trying to make sense of this void that is struggling to become.
And in between chapters, there are quotations from novels, criticism, poetry, religious texts, which will relate to forthcoming actions and moods in the text, while at the same time forming links which tie the novel into a place within the canon of a certain mode of literature. “You speak like a green girl, unsifted in such perilous circumstance. – Polonius to Ophelia in Hamlet.” and “What I am writing is something more than mere invention; it is my duty to relate everything about this girl among thousands of others like her. It is my duty, however unrewarding, to confront her with her own existance – Clarice Lispector, The Hour of The Star.” Zambreno positions her novel within the context of literature of the girl.
If you’ve never read The Hour of the Star, or Hamlet, or Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys, Green Girl may read differently to you. If you’ve never been a young woman, struggling for identity, this may speak differently to you. I worked in a department store, I have very recently been an immigrant worker in a huge, indifferent city. I was never obsessed with make-up nor with imitating the elegance of film stars. It is a strange situation to be in, as a reader used to looking at plot and theme and technique, to instead feel I must focus on character and related literature. Green Girl makes me want to plan a course in literature of the girl, representations of young femininity. To stabilise my frantic reading in context and to make bored young men read it, confident young women who may think they have never have felt like Ruth. I want to match it with its predecessors, hold film showings. Go all the way back to Early Modern English to find examples of women and men writing then about the same things; desperation, identity, lust, God, anonymity. I want to hear the young men say, rubbing their foreheads, tapping the tables, “I dunno, she was kind of pathetic, that’s all” and then say, look, read it again, try to understand. What is being said about loneliness, vulnerability, identity, faith. How would you write about it? How am I writing about it, with my Kilea and Aida? How am I writing myself, in failings and searchings and mirrors, in my daily life?
Some novels you don’t read for pleasure or to be consoled. This is one of them. Axes and frozen seas. A freight train goes rattling through the night, keeping me awake.