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Dark Matters, by Susan Hawthorne.

January 9, 2018

Dark Matters

Dark Matters, by Susan Hawthorne. Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2017.



A deeply moving novel about a woman who is imprisoned and tortured, and her niece who tries to read her writings after her death.

Susan Hawthorne (1951-    ) is an Australian woman, well-known for her wide-ranging writings, achievements, and interests.  Her twenty books include award-winning fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.  She has a PhD in Political Science and Women’s Studies and has written about the environment, war, violence, and the publishing industry, often bringing to such subjects an unusual feminist perspective.  Her books move easily back and forth across genres, subjects, and languages in ways grounded in the breadth of her interests and knowledge.  In addition to her individual writing projects, she and Renate Klein created the radical feminist press Spinifex, twenty-five years ago.  With Spinifex, Hawthorne continues to make available books by and about women with innovative styles and radical critiques of taboo subjects. Spinifex is my favorite press for obtaining books by and about a wide variety of women regardless of their race, class, nationality or sexual orientation.

In Dark Matters, Hawthorne writes of torture from the perspective of a woman who is tortured, never knowing what she had done to merit such treatment, or if her lesbian partner was killed in the sudden attack on them.  After her death, a niece who never knew her well tries to organize and digest her aunt’s scattered writing.  In the process, the two women seem to blur into each other until I wasn’t sure which was which, and that seemed as it should be.

Hawthorne uses a swirling, modern style of writing in which fragments of the past and present are interwoven in a seemingly random account.  The imprisoned woman’s numbered journal entries are the major hint of a traditional chronology, and readers can see how the ongoing torture changes her.  Hawthorne handles the style well, balancing innovation with order.  Readers may be confused (as the characters themselves are confused), but Hawthorne never quite loses them.

The beauty of the language of the book provides a necessary distance for facing the horrors about which Hawthorne writes.  Given the topic, this book could have been much more depressing, or voyeuristic.  Readers are confronted with the “dark matters,” but only through words on the page, reminding us that the world we live in is not always benign.  Sometimes we need to be reminded of this to avoid glib optimism or the assumption that we are alone if we suffer.  Hawthorne’s insight and skill keep the story from being overwhelming for most readers.

This is a wonderful book that I heartily recommend.  However, a few readers with their own experiences with trauma may want to skip this one.


Books by Susan Hawthorne that I have read and reviewed:


Lupa and Lamb


Looking up Hawthorne for this review, I found all her other books and decided to read some more of them.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2018 12:35 am

    This sounds a powerful novel but one as you say that could be challenging to read. I’m curious about that cover – do the patterns have a significance in the book?

    • January 10, 2018 1:18 am

      Yes they do, in a metaphorical sense around the idea of mitochondrial DNA.

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