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B.C. Author Annabel Lyon on Her New Novel Consent
The genesis of her thriller comes from Dostoevsky, McQueen and Bauby / BY Kim Honey / November 1st, 2020
Car accidents. A BDSM relationship. Twin sisters who impersonate each other. A locked-in coma patient who can only communicate with her eyes.
Although B.C. author Annabel Lyon’s new novel Consent is marketed as literary fiction, it is a thriller replete with over-the-top suspense and a killer plot twist at the end.
“It was way harder [to write] than I thought,” Lyon said in a recent interview from her home in New Westminster, B.C., adding that organizing the narrative and making sure all the timelines added up was “almost like math.”
When asked what was the most difficult part about writing a thriller, she answered without hesitation: “Oh my God, the cellphone, and I am not being facetious.”
A missing phone and the photos it contains are central to one storyline, but Lyon got more queries about that in the editing process than any other part of the book.
“You put a cellphone in a thriller and there are questions,” she said. “How is still charged after all this time and why can’t they use find my iPhone and isn‘t it password protected? Every draft was mainly questions about the cellphone. I will never put a cellphone in a book again.”
Lyon, who has a philosophy degree and teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia, has left ancient Greece in the dust after 2012’s The Sweet Girl, about Aristotle’s daughter, Pythias, and her debut novel, 2009’s The Golden Mean, about how the philosopher tutored – and molded – Alexander the Great. Along with Consent, all three made the long list for the Giller Prize in fiction, while The Golden Mean was on the short list for both a Giller and a Governor General’s Literary Award and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Award for Fiction.
A decade ago, Lyon decided to revisit a 2004 short story she published in subTerrain magazine called “Mattie and Her Husband,” about an intellectually disabled woman who marries her mother’s handyman when her older sister isn’t paying attention to what’s going on in the house after their mother dies.
“It always nagged at me and never really felt finished,” said Lyon, who admitted it was “a slow process” given the intricacies of the plot and the fact that she had to write around her teaching schedule.
The title may conjure thoughts of sexual assault, and although the book is about that, too, it is about so much more. Like a philosopher, the novel poses questions around the complicated moral and ethical issues of consent.
“If you think you’ve given consent, what does that actually mean? I wanted to broaden that out and look at consent in various aspects of life,” Lyon said. “It does touch on what is consent is, who can give it and when is consent legitimately taken it away … it points to how fascinating and complex the situation is.”
The Origins of Consent
In this essay, Lyon explains the genesis of her novel, which was 16 years in the making, and how it is a conversation between three seminal books: Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly, and Metropolitan Museum of the Art curator Andrew Bolton’s Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.
This woman was Lizaveta Ivanovna, or simply Lizaveta, as everyone called her, the younger sister of that same old woman, Alyona Ivanovna, widow of a collegiate registrar, the money-lender whom Raskolnikov had visited the day before to pawn his watch and make his trial… He had long known all about this Lizaveta, and she even knew him slightly. She was a tall, awkward, timid, and humble wench of thirty-five, all but an idiot, and was a complete slave to her sister, worked for her day and night, trembled before her….
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (transl. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)
In 2004, a lawyer friend told me of a case he was working on: a young woman from a wealthy family had married a handyman. The sister of the young woman had retained him to get the marriage annulled. The handyman, she claimed, was a gold-digger. The young woman, she argued, could not consent to marriage because she had the mental capacity of a 10 year old.
I happened to be re-reading Crime and Punishment at the time, and was struck by a few things. The way language evolves, for instance: from Dostoevsky’s 19th century “idiot” to the pseudo-diagnostic “mental retardation” of the early 20th century, to “mentally handicapped” (as I was taught to say in the mid-seventies), to the current language around “capacity.”
The novel’s titular crime is the murder by a poor young student, Raskolnikov, of sisters Alyona and Lisaveta Ivanovna, on the grounds that Alyona’s death would cause more good in the world than evil because of the way she preyed on those around her. After the murder, Raskolnikov spends the remainder of the novel haunted by what he’s done, obsessed with the scene of the crime, and inexorably pursued by a detective, Porfiry, who is the prototype for so many dogged detectives to come.
I was struck, too, by how Dostoevsky painted his female characters in muted colours, a familiar dull scrim for the male conscience to perform in front of. Alyona, the money-lender, was utterly evil and disgusting, leading Raskolnikov to “rationally” assess the utilitarian worth of her murder. Her sister, simple Lisaveta, is collateral damage. Having witnessed her sister’s murder, she too must be killed, and it is this second murder – of sweetness and innocence – that pricks Raskolnikov’s conscience until it bleeds.
Evil and disgusting; sweet and innocent. I couldn’t help but wonder what the sisters’ version of this story would be. If Alyona were utterly evil, would she still be taking care of Lisaveta? If the sisters were suspicious, miserly, even frightened, didn’t they have reason to be? These were single women living alone on the wrong side of 19th century St. Petersburg. Sure enough, the men they scraped their living from – men like Raskolnikov – were the men who could and would destroy them. They were right to be suspicious; right to be afraid.
I decided to re-envision the story of the murder of the money-lender and her sister from the women’s point of view. My Raskolnikov – renamed Robert, a handyman now instead of a student – still made a hubristic performance of his guilt and regret, but he was no longer alone onstage. Lizaveta became Mattie, the wealthy young woman who married him, and Alyona became Sara, a professor of ethics and lover of high fashion, who gets the marriage annulled because of her sister’s lack of capacity for consent.
Consent: the concept has kaleidoscopic implications. Sexual consent, certainly, but also consent in relationship to care giving, to family, to intellect, to wellness, and to death. Who can give consent? Who can withhold it? Are there limits to what we can consent to?
We interpret consent to a certain extent through clothing – what was she wearing? We use clothes as costume, as code, as armour, for status, for camouflage, as language. Sara, in my novel, uses fashion as both sword and shield. She spends too much on it, fetishizes it, and uses its intellectual side to draw a dividing line between herself and her sister. Her lonely obsession is part addiction, part performance, part quest.
In Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky spends a lot of time describing the state of people’s clothes. When Raskolnikov’s jolly friend Razumikhin decides to give him an extreme makeover, Dostoevsky devotes four pages to Razumikhin’s loving description of his purchases: hempen shirts, leather boots, the ‘United Pants of America,’ and a fashionable matching waistcoat. Mopey Raskolnikov, of course, is impervious to the charms of either old friends or new clothes. He is strapped too tight into the straightjacket of his own conscience, a different kind of clothing entirely.
Having turned down the hideous jogging-suit provided by the hospital, I am now attired as I was in my student days. Like the bath, my old clothes could easily bring back poignant memories. But I see in the clothes a symbol of continuing life. And proof that I still want to be myself. If I must drool, I may as well drool on cashmere.
– Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
The former editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine, Jean-Dominique Bauby, wrote The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly from his hospital bed. It’s a memoir – in heart-wrenchingly brief chapters – of waking up from a massive stroke to find himself paralyzed, speechless, able to move only a single eyelid. He spelled out the words of the book by blinking. Two days after the publication of the memoir, Bauby died of heart failure at the age of 44.
When I began thinking about incorporating a second storyline into Consent, another set of sisters to act as a foil to Mattie and Sara, I was torn. On the one hand, I wanted to write a thriller; on the other, I wanted to parody a thriller. My approach, at least initially, was firmly tongue-in-cheek. What are the conventions of the thriller? I asked myself. Sexual secrets, sudden violence, inexorable pursuit of the criminal – shout-out to Porfiry! Twins? Comas? Twins in comas!
Saskia and Jenny are sisters, twins. Identical, but also not: Saskia “knew she looked like what she was: a depressed, penniless student who resembled her twin the way a raisin resembles a grape.” Saskia wears MEC and studies dead French depressives. Jenny is beautiful, charming, unpredictable, and impulsive. She has secrets – even from her twin – secrets that lead her to a horrific car crash that leaves her ‘locked in’: paralyzed but conscious, communicating – like Bauby – by blinking.
Quickly, though, these sisters rose (plunged?) from glibness to tragedy. Their relationship – of simultaneous intimacy and distance, and of ambivalent caregiving – came to resonate with Sara and Mattie’s. In each pairing, one sister is forced to be the reliable one, the steady one, while the other becomes the one in need of care. Issues of neuro-divergence are compounded in both cases by allegations of sexual assault. Did these women consent? Could they consent? Who got to decide? And when a second tidal wave of tragedy hits, what recourse do the survivors have?
I design clothes because I don’t want women to look all innocent and naïve… I want woman to look stronger… I don’t like women to be taken advantage of… I don’t like men whistling at women in the street. I think they deserve more respect. I like men to keep their distance from women, I like men to be stunned by an entrance. I’ve seen a woman get nearly beaten to death by her husband. I know what misogyny is… I want people to be afraid of the women I dress.
– Alexander McQueen
When you tell people you like fashion (if you tell people you like fashion), they think they’ve learned something about you: that you want to be pretty, that you shop compulsively, that you’re ‘girly’ or ‘femme.’ And if you’re shy about sharing your taste for clothes, well, that’s understandable, right? Who wants to be known as superficial?
When I tell people I like fashion, I’m quick to add certain qualifiers. I say: Not, like, fast fashion, not Zara. I say: You wouldn’t know it to look at me, I wear jeans and t-shirts like a normal person. I say, I mean haute couture, I mean fashion as art.
This instinct – to qualify, to apologize, to aggrandize – is my own performance of clothes as code, as status, as armour. Like Sara in Consent, I see messages in colours and fabrics: strength, fragility, approachability, distance (code). I intellectualize fashion and its history to give it grandeur, importance, weight (status). I love most of all those clothes that challenge, that subvert, that question, that offend (armour). Symmetry, matching colours, prettiness: yes, but why? Gendered clothing: says who? Female modesty (what was she wearing?): WTAF?
The late British designer Alexander McQueen was the embodiment of WTAF, both in his approach to design and in the response he elicited from audiences at his shows. In his 1992 MA graduation collection from Central St. Martins, “Jack the Ripper Stalks his Victims,” he combined knife-sharp neo-Victorian tailoring and fabrics that resembled flayed flesh. In “Highland Rape” his models staggered down the runway in torn and apparently semen-stained clothes. Feminists who decried the objectification of the models missed McQueen’s source of inspiration, the genocidal Highland Clearances of the 18th century. ‘We’re not talking about models’ feelings here,’ McQueen (who was gay) infamously responded. ‘We’re talking about mine.’
In “VOSS” he depicted a Victorian mental asylum. That show culminated in a shattering glass box that revealed a naked woman in a gas mask surrounded by moths (recreating the painting Sanitarium by Joel Peter Witkin). In his final show, “Plato’s Atlantis,” the models wore jutting facial prosthetics and fabrics featuring digitally photographed closed-ups of skin and scales. On their feet they wore bizarre, towering platform boots that looked like a cross between a ballerina’s pointe shoe and a claw. Lady Gaga wore a pair in the video for Bad Romance.
The idea that women’s clothes should evoke disgust or fear is surprising, confusing, unnerving; probably because the idea that women themselves should evoke disgust or fear (rather than suffer it) is still seen as subversive. Alyona and Lizaveta were only frightening to Raskolnikov after they were dead, and then only as mirrors to his own dark soul: he wasn’t scared of them, he was scared of himself. But strong women, scary women, stupid women, ugly women, angry women—WTAF? Who wants to read about that?
You can’t write a feminist revisioning of Crime and Punishment without female characters. That meant changing a few things: my sisters couldn’t both die at the outset of the story, and Raskolnikov’s compulsive return to the murder scene became months of stalking. When the parallel storylines finally collide in Consent, the sisters become the ones who torment themselves by revisiting the novel’s crimes again and again.
Love falters; caregiving ends. Punishment, in Consent, is ambiguous and inward-looking. Saskia punishes those who betray her by cutting them out of her life, one by one, until she’s virtually alone. Sara plans a solo shopping trip to Paris on the anniversary of Mattie’s death. Her friend, David, recognizes the trip for what it is: an aesthetic escape, yes, but also a disgusting self-indulgence, a tangle of selfishness and guilt and grief, a descent into hell. Frightened for her, he begs her to give up her drinking, her wandering, her rage, her shame. He tells her Mattie loved her. He begs her to come home.
“‘You were her better self,’ David says. ‘And she was yours.’
Sara hangs up the phone. I was her punishment, certainly, she thinks, taking the empty suitcase out from under the bed. As she was mine. But remind me again of our crime?”
Annabel Lyon is the author of Consent, which was published Sept. 29 by Penguin Random House. She teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia.