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Darkness More Visible, by Finola Moorhead.

June 11, 2012

Darkness More Visible, by Finola Moorhead. Australia: Spinifex Press (2001), Paperback, 650 pages

A big, enjoyable novel about a group of lesbians, a murder mystery being investigated by one of them, and much more.

Darkness More Visible was fun, but for me the book lacked the greatness of Moorhead’s Remembering the Tarantella. As in Tarantella, Moorhead focuses her story on a group of lesbians around Sydney and in their own Lesbianland community nearby in the Dividing Range. Again her writing is experimental with lots of jumping around between characters and subplots. This time Moorhead focuses more on the dynamics of couples coming together and breaking up. One of her characters is an ex-cop investigating several suspicious events, including a murder, and interacting with men in the police department. Drugs, the internet, environmental destruction, international capitalists, crooks and vicious misogynists are all part of the story. The book is also full of arguments over the nature of feminism and lesbianism.

I know that I am unfair to compare Darkness to Tarantella. Having read Tarantella first, I expected too much. Darkness was written earlier and presents some of the situations and issues that are developed more completely and impressively in Tarantella.

Sometimes I found size and breadth of Darkness overwhelming. I had a hard time keeping up with personalities and subplots. Over 600 pages in length, Darkness lacked the magical unity which Moorhead created in Tarantella. In an interview, she described spending eight years writing the later book, building its structure from everything from geometric shapes and astrological signs. When it was written, she cut the manuscript down by a third. Darkness displayed the need for such deliberate attention to structure. At times I wished Moorhead had divided it into three novels rather than presenting it as one.

In addition, I often felt like an outsider while reading Darkness in a way I had not in Tarantella. I have gradually learned to visualize Australian flora and fauna, which are very much a part of Moorhead’s books, but I never got a grip on the slang used in this book. Sometimes authors are able to focus on a small group at the same time they reveal universal themes. Moorhead did that in Tarantella but not here. I felt like this was a book by and for the Australian lesbian community. Here I felt like an American tourist, almost a voyeur.

More importantly, reading Tarantella, I felt hopeful about human beings finding ways to live together with joy and compassion. Moorhead gave me sense that women can find ways to have space for themselves at the same time they can be part of a supportive community. Darkness not only lacked a unified structure; it also seemed to be more about division and conflict. Some individuals in the book did develop positively, some good relationships were formed, and the bad individuals were punished in the end. But on the whole, the book seemed to be about women hurting each other, something I already know all too well.

Also reading Darkness on my Nook, I couldn’t follow some of the sections where Moorhead was reproducing internet messages. Here she develops the intriguing idea of revolution online. I wish I could have followed more closely.

Yet despite my complaints aside, Moorhead simply is a fine writer with an eye and an ear for capturing her characters. She is great at establishing incongruities and inherent contradictions. I liked the way in which some characters turned out to be much more positive than first expected, and others much worse. For me, Moorhead is an engaging writer and just plain fun to read.

I read this on my Nook, having ordered a copy online from IPG.

Yes, I do recommend Darkness More Visible, but if possible, read it before you read Tarantella.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2012 2:15 am

    Oh you’re one ahead of me … I haven’t yet read any of her books. I clearly should give her a try. 650 pages though! That seems like a big ask. Am I churlish for thinking so?

  2. June 12, 2012 10:27 am

    I got churlish myself about the length. If you are sampling, go ahead with Tarantella which is a better book–at half the length.

  3. June 12, 2012 8:44 pm

    it’s funny thinking of you way over the ocean so many years on from when i wrote them; i, of course, wrote for someone like you (whom i will never know), who does see my sense of humor & has a joy of reading & may or may not know the secrets of fiction-writing but you were right on one score, darkness was meant to be 3. looking forward to what you think of the one that won the prize: still murder. cheers, fm

    • June 14, 2012 10:32 am

      Finola. Thanks
      I am a mundane historian with no real sense of the secrets of fiction-writing. For years I just gulped novels, finding them the safest way to learn about life and the world and all that. It’s only since I retired that I have begun to read them more slowly paying attention to ingredients like words and structures. I still have little language to discuss them on my blog. That’s why I appreciated your discussion of how you wrote Tarantella so much. I did use novels when teaching history and women’s studies, but more for content and to expand my students’ minds and hearts than how they worked.
      For a long time I have been particularly interested in the stories women tell that went untold when males dominated the narrating—or dominated it even more than they still do. Currently I am begining to explore non-USA/EUR women’s stories.
      Still Murder is waiting on my shelf. I am hoarding it since it is the last. Unless I try your poetry, despite not being a poetry person. Maybe I will just reread Tarantella to see what I missed the first time. A good book is one you need to read again.

      • June 14, 2012 6:25 pm

        Love you, for speaking, for blogging, for using your retirement in such a self-nurturing way; there is nothing i love more than a woman becoming as complete as she can, for there’s lots of darkness still visible. My mother was an historian; wallowing about in the tides and swells of time is an intellectual swim i enjoy, though while she knew what Henry VIII ate, I could never remember the names of his wives. In Australia, about 30 yrs ago, the literary powers-that-be confused journalism/memoir/history — fact stories with names and places changed — with fiction; a confabulation which hurt, still hurts. I actually find it ethically wrong: no actual woman or man in my work is at all portrayed. The characters have their own existence in their own world which is a hell of an effort to create. I don’t have a problem with documents of our time, it is just that they are not fiction but these took the prizes and people didn’t seem to realize the difference. Writing is writing, so what? I don’t know what to do next; when I wrote the many drafts of the Tarantella I was on a mission, the female aesthetic I called it and I would do it come hell or high water. Both came, believe it not; and both SM and DMV come after RTT, which is what my little smile was conveying, though i appreciate you describing yourself, cheers, F

  4. June 16, 2012 8:37 pm

    Finola, How could I have gotten the order of your books wrong? And to base my review of DMV on its having been a step toward RTT? Evidence of my lack of understanding of how fiction gets created, I guess. Thanks for being forgiving of me.
    Yes, I can believe hell and high water both came. they usually do. when we do something difficult that we care about.


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