WRITING BACKWARDS: Susan Hawthorne’s Dark Matters

Review by Lucy Alexander
Edited by Robyn Cadwallader

What if it was you who were woken by the crash of your door falling in the early hours of morning? Just when your sleep is at its deepest, masked men — with guns they are not afraid to discharge — wake you, haul you from your bed, gag you and force you to the back door.

Susan Hawthorne’s novel Dark Matters asks us to examine: in that moment, how would we react?

These men do not hesitate to kill your dog. They drag you out leaving behind your lover, who falls with a cry to the floor. Is she hurt? Is she dead? They bundle you — powerless and vulnerable, the neighbourhood deaf to your gagged distress — into a waiting vehicle. They drive you into the darkness.

You are gone. 

Hawthorne seems to directly ask her reader: is this so very fictional? 

Dark Matters has been called ficto-criticism [i]— a way of combining theory and criticism, often with a feminist bent — into works that identify as fiction. While this tends to be a term bound up with new journalism, it is possible to see the bones of Hawthorne’s intent in Dark Matters as she unbraids the strands of the story and uncovers the mysterious, dangerous and unspoken area of stolen women, lesbian torture, and erasure of stories that go against the grain of patriarchal thinking.

It was Jacques Derrida who asked for a term that encompassed fictional works that sought to deform the limits of literature. Ficto-criticism has been thought to fill the void Derrida identified. Dark Matters is a complex, thoughtful, textured and confronting read, and Hawthorne makes use of many strands and complexities of narrative device and direction to reveal the very pit of the deep story. She holds the reader in a vortex of emotion and history. Using direct narration, a complex combination of recall/letter/poetry, and archetypal characters, Hawthorne creates a meta-narrative that seeks to uncover the censored story. And while the term ‘diary’ is never used, the written memories read in a similar way to a diary.

Hawthorne demands her readers consider: who are we to be so complacent?  It is this intention — even more than the disquieting narrative technique, the deforming and reforming of structure and modes of telling — that places Dark Matters into the category of ficto-criticism.

Dark Matters is the book I felt obliged to write,’ Hawthorne admits. ‘A conscience book that demanded airing. Stories like this need to be told. I have met survivors of the type of experience that my character Kate goes through.’[ii]


The central thread of the novel follows the experience of Desi, who has inherited her aunt Kate’s house. There are no instructions about what to do with the older woman’s piles of papers and the boxes of writings. As the novel opens, Desi has only just become aware of the dense mystery that crouches there among the words, waiting for her to have time to unpack it. It is Desi’s fresh and unpolished voice that carries this strand of the story — as she confides directly to the reader what she’s discovered about her aunt from the mess of papers left to her.

‘One day I was having a big clean up and about to junk the lot. I sat down to read a few scraps of paper and was bowled over…’ (p.4)

What she discovers is the secret at the heart of the novel, the one that requires to be told as much through Hawthorne’s impetus as the character’s. At one level the question seems to be: what happened to Desi’s maiden aunt, Kate (or Ekaterina in her writings) when she went missing for several months towards the end of her life? But also, how did Kate survive what happened? And finally, core to this survival, what happened to Kate’s lover, Mercedes?

‘I really like Desi as a character’, Hawthorne says of her youthful central character. ‘She’s always in such a hurry.’[iii] And yet, Desi does take the time to read through the papers and finds what appears to be a diary that lays out Kate’s abduction. Through this very real association Desi gets to know her dead aunt intimately. Her attention to detail gives her access (with the reader almost looking over her shoulder) to a richer version of her own family history, as well as the way to survive extremes on a diet of myth and poetry.

After being abducted from the house that Desi inherited, Kate seems to have made a point of remembering the daily details of her incarceration, and subsequently records them in a kind of ‘diary’ written in recollection. It is this actual document that carries another of the novel’s intertwining narratives: intimate terrors are written in this ‘diary’ — one that is made available through Desi’s opening of the boxes. In this way, we readers are not alone in enduring Kate’s experience. We have Desi there with us to witness. 

Use of a diary is familiar technique, a way for the author to draw the reader aside into intimate space. It allows an author to use the direct voice of the confessional, so the document of the diary within the greater story is more ‘truthful’, more ‘real’. Hawthorne makes use of this in the relentless and almost daily writing of Kate’s experience in the hell where she is held captive. Yet among the other strands of her narrative — the convincing voices layered over the tangled plot that Desi has to decipher with the reader on her heels — this ‘diary’ rings hollow.

The question arises: would Kate have kept a diary when she was locked in a cell, alone and routinely raped and tortured? As the writing of the experience is — in part — what allows Kate to survive, calling on her rich understanding of the ancient Greek myths and deep connection to the poetic, the diary as an artifact, as a testimonial, as a voice in the dark, wavers thin in the harsh reality of the story it tells and the resounding importance of its essential truth above and beyond the document that is Dark Matters. Even if it is read as a recollected re-writing, this too examines a fault-line in the human psyche — that it’s our nature to look away from trauma, to avoid the reliving of pain. Here, Hawthorne’s character does what Hawthorne challenges her reader to do: to not avoid the challenge of examining the wounds, the scars, the almost unspeakable suffering .

But, perhaps we should suspend our disbelief, as this might just be the price that ficto-criticism pays: is it here we see the deformation of fiction that Derrida pointed to?


Another of the narrative threads: what happened to Kate is akin to the experience of her lover Mercedes’ Chilean family. Kate is disappeared from her Melbourne home, in what appears to be the early 2000s (though Hawthorne is deliberately evasive about this). The novel is not explicit as to why she is taken, though there is reference to feminist and lesbian activist work and this is perhaps also deliberately blurred. The fact remains that Kate and Mercedes are singled out to be deconstructed, silenced and broken as much as possible, to create fear and hysteria (a problematic term in feminist theory, but essentially what the abductors seek to incite). As a writer and a film maker respectively the two women have the means to create, build and inform culture. As lesbians, they are not burdened by the childbearing family ties of other women and thus do they have the freedom to act as powerful voices that stand up to dominant patriarchal cultural thinking, to go against the grain? This is left to the reader and Desi to decide.

The fact that Kate does not break, that she is able to be resilient and to survive, is what fascinates Desi, and speaks strongly of the deep-rooted power of poetry, myth and story, even with broken and backwards lines.

If the abduction was an attempt to silence Kate, it comes close to doing so. She writes:

‘What happened next I cannot recount. No, I don’t want to speak it. I don’t want to put it into words. What if my words are misused? What if in speaking I harm others? My silence adding to the mounds of silence. But what alternative is there. I cannot speak.’  (p.136)

But it does not silence her, and through her written memories, essays and poetry she is remembered and therefore essentially successful in her bid to have her voice heard, even if it is after her death. Even if it is though the work of her niece.

At the core of the novel is the built-in comment on the process of silencing and breaking alternative viewpoints. That the great articulateness of Kate the writer is nearly destroyed at this point in the narrative speaks of the devastating power of the ‘cold hard gun’ in the hands of those in power. It is the millions of unspoken stories that hide in this one, the ones that Hawthorne knows of across the world that have been successfully silenced.


Another strand of the narrative: Kate’s recount of her abduction is only one of the documents that Desi finds in the boxes. There are other writings, published and unpublished, poems, fragments, stories and essays from Kate. She was a diverse writer and one to whom her own Greek heritage spoke strongly. The other writings that are scattered through the novel are Kate’s thoughtful explorations of what it means to be a woman, a lesbian, a migrant and a writer. Ekaterina is possibly the most convincing when she is writing for an audience of readers — not as a record keeper or witness to her own defilement — but as a woman questing to understand her own place among others.

It was the singing that began language. We imitated the birds. And slowly, so very slowly words began to take shape. Words formed electrical charges in our brains. Concepts arising with each new song. And so, in a way we sang ourselves, our communities into being. (p.10)

The philosophical musings pair beautifully with the extremes of the abduction narrative. They show who Kate was and illustrate why she cannot be broken or silenced. Because, while she still has the use of her mind she has words and song and the possibility to communicate them along the synapses so strongly written into her poetic self.

Through her explorations of Kate’s writing, Desi — our touchstone and commentator — is able to take on her own quest. Through  Desi’s research — which she turns into a thesis called Diagonal Genealogies — she gains a new maturity. In understanding something of Kate’s life she comes to know herself more strongly. At the end of the novel both characters are redeemed — though don’t for a moment mistake this for being saved — through their parallel journey.


Another thread of narrative: there’s an ancient technique of writing, often used when carving inscriptions into stone, called boustrophedon. If you are familiar with Hawthorne’s other works  — for instance, Hawthorne’s book of poetry, Cow,[iv] — you will not be surprised that the image of the cow makes its way into the novel.  The name boustrophedon is based on the patterns of the plough of Cretan farmers who turned their oxen to travel back against the last furrow they had made. The poem thus moves forwards and then backwards across the page, much like the stories threaded together in Dark Matters — some harder to decipher than others — that move from woman to woman, aunt to niece, lover to lover.

totheotherlineyoujustkeepgoingbackwar… (p.5)

Susan Hawthorne

With this Hawthorne demonstrates the back and forward against the grain that Desi’s thesis (which, it is implied, is in fact the text of the novel we hold in our hands) illustrates; the way in which the aunt passes on a belief system, a formed cultural heritage to the niece; the way in which neither aunt nor niece can have this taken from them. The broken lines, the backwards text are part of the unwritten, unspoken great silence of women resisting the dominant culture — in both extreme and unnoticed ways. As Kate says in her great distress:

‘My brain is like a map. A grey and white spiral print with complex twists and turnings. It could be the passage of mitochondria through time, the female line. Now and then a thick red line crosses the branches and my mind stops until I can invent a way around this barrier.’ (p.126)

And so Desi comes to decipher the code left to her by her aunt that takes in the gaps and discrepancies of stories, the backwards and forth across the page, the shifts in tense and telling and voice. The poetic line breaks exposing the gaps in generations, a hiatus in a life, a broken thread of thought or the missing character that causes the narrative to run against the grain for a while. This causes a codification of telling secrets: they are not for just anyone to blunder upon.

Desi, as collator of the leftover material bemoans:

I found some more poems by Kate today, they were in a small crumpled envelope. Tucked away. Why? Who was it she didn’t want reading these poems? I’m trying to find an order for them — they are tiny poems about love and death and pain.

poems are shields —
they beat my body,
they prod my skin,
but my poems are my armour, amor         

I’m not sure what to do with all this writing. It’s simply impossible to put it together so that it makes one whole work…

Here’s another of those tiny poems:

How to contain

these feelings —
only poems

Which came first? On the one hand, poetry keeps her sane and protects her, on the other it is the containment of feeling. On the envelope, she had written, for Mercedes if she ever asks to read.

My question now, is Mercedes still alive? (p.86-7)

Because there was a shot fired during her abduction and Kate re-calls the figure of her lover falling to the ground she is convinced that Mercedes is dead. Desi has found a description of the death of a woman fitting Mercedes in the archive. Deep in the heart of the conspiracy there are the questions of who Mercedes was and why her family fled Pinochet’s Chile so early. There is a photo Desi has; does it reveal the identity of the woman standing with a young girl outside the house of the poet Pablo Neruda in Valparaiso?

Desi has to find out.

Is it the very association with the poet that make Mercedes and her family more at risk from the Chilean regime? Because if powerful, fearful regimes hate anything, they hate poets…and is this why Mercedes has disappeared herself?

Towards the end of her research, Desi writes: ‘All the men are brutes and all the women are birds. It’s true. If you read back through your Greek stories, it’s all there.’ (p.155) And this is the direction the novel has us look. At the long history of the destruction of women from Persephone through Rapunzel down to Kate or Ekaterina…

Much like the Cretan farmer using a proverbial carrot to urge his oxen across the field, Hawthorne tends to her reader with clues and signals. Her use of fictional narrative, poetry and myth to inform theory, criticise it, feminise it and then transform it, makes this work sing. As a theorist, feminist, poet, Ancient Greek scholar, publisher and author, Hawthorne feels strongly for the subject matter and writes from compassion and enquiry. While the reader is left with the unease of unanswered questions, this seems to be a deliberate methodology.

Dark Matters is a passionate avowal against the Orwellian future that’s bearing down on the present. It traces historical counterculture through poetry and despair. It is a book of great feeling, mystery and intrigue which seeks out and elegantly deforms the limits traditionally placed on the novel to make it blaze in mythic proportions.

[i] Singer, Haley, Cordite Poetry Review, No Theme VII no. 86  (May 2018).
[ii] Personal conversation with Susan Hawthorne, May 19, 2018.
[iii] Personal conversation with Susan Hawthorne, May 19, 2018.
[iv] Hawthorne, Susan, Cow (North Melbourne: Spinifex), 2011.

Susan Hawthorne
Dark Matters: a novel
Spinifex Press, 2017
RRP $26.95, ebook $16.95

Lucy Alexander calls herself a word construction artist, which is just a fancy term for writer. She writes poetry, prose, articles about dogs and reviews of Australian writers. She lives in Canberra in a menagerie of animals, has four children and a very lovely husband.  At the moment she’s participating in HardCopy for her non fiction manuscript about naming dogs as well as collaborating with digital artist (fancy word for illustrator) Paul Summerfield on a young adult illustrated work. Find more from Lucy at her website