Travelling in the Dark (2018): Emma Timpany

★★★

Sarah is making a long overdue journey. With her eight-year-old son beside her, she is on a long-haul flight from her home in London, ‘slipping across countries through the shimmering boundaries of time’, heading back to southern New Zealand where she grew up. As she nears her destination, Sarah must tackle memories from her childhood, recollections of a hard, unfair time that, even now, refuses to loosen its claws completely. Emma Timpany’s evocative but bleak novella, part of the Fairlight Moderns series, probes at the way in which we are yoked to our pasts and follows one woman’s efforts to close the circle: ‘Sometimes it’s just a matter of waiting; waiting for history and memory to align, like stars over a mountain, and lead you home.

At first, the purpose of Sarah’s journey is unknown, but it gradually becomes clear that she has come back to visit an old friend. As they travel further down into the south of the island, Sarah tries to enthuse her little boy with the legends and landscapes of her native country, trying to offer him a richly enjoyable experience that will contrast with her own bitter memories. Like a journey in a dream, where the travel is the point and not the destination, Sarah’s trip is unexpectedly lengthened by diversions and delays. She and the child wander along beaches, spend time in playgrounds, paddle in lakes and watch penguins waddling out of the surf. In all these things, she finds echoes of her earlier life: her violent father; her spiteful mother and point-scoring sister; her friends, whose relationship squeezed her out. Why return now? What has finally encouraged her to come home, after almost a decade trying to leave her memories behind?

There are passages of raw beauty in Timpany’s prose, moments which encourage you to halt and reread, but on the whole it’s difficult to really engage. She has chosen a distant, rather detached narrative voice, which makes it very hard to empathise with Sarah even though she’s been on the receiving end of so much suffering. The novella gains an abstract quality which leaches Sarah’s story of colour and heft – perhaps deliberately? Are we looking at the world through the eyes of someone still unable to look her past in the eye, or struggling to overcome a distance imposed by trauma? Sarah herself has the preternatural calm of someone who has managed to survive everything the world has thrown at her so far, and has come to expect nothing better:

I have travelled to a place that you cannot buy a ticket to; there is no train that goes there, no boat, no plane; there is no map that you can follow to find it; there is no road. It lies on the other side of that circle of light. It is always dark there, and it is always cold.

It doesn’t make for an upbeat read, but it has affecting moments, burying down into the pit of your stomach and leaving you with a strange, nauseous little feeling. There’s little to relieve a succession of crushing incidents, as Sarah’s memories of childhood misery are compounded by thoughts of her more recent divorce, and distressing tantrums thrown by her erratic child. (I read a review that criticised the characterisation of the child, saying that his behaviour seems like that of a far younger boy. I’m in no position to judge, myself, being unfamiliar with developmental stages, but it seems possible.) You do find yourself thinking: hasn’t this woman suffered enough? And yet Timpany’s story does offer the possibility of future redemption. Sarah has suffered, but she has survived, and she is now strong enough to go back and face what needs to be confronted. Her journey is physical and emotional, spiritual and moral: a slow but determined slog from darkness into compassion. The title is significant, in this respect: Timpany writes in her acknowledgements that it was inspired by an unpublished fragment by the Kiwi poet Robin Hyde: ‘who travels with his dreams travels with a dark torch‘. 

I’ll be honest: I don’t think I want to reread this, because its unremitting bleakness is too heavy for my spirits, but I can appreciate elements of its poetry and its strange, hypnotic, lazy flow. It is a hard little story of human cruelty, both the violent physical kind and the equally damaging, emotionally thoughtless kind – but perhaps it offers the possibility of hope; of change; of a new beginning? Strange, lingering, and a little bitter on the tongue.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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