THIS ARTICLE IS BROUGHT TO YOU WITH SUPPORT FROM SPOILER CITY. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT READ NEEDLEWORK. THIS HAS BEEN A PSA.
Last Thursday brought about the launch of Deirdre Sullivan’s Needlework, a novel constructed with such beauty, care and consideration that I spent a solid three hours reading it until I reached the final page. That beauty, care and consideration is a marked contrast to the anger, sadness and hopelessness that is thematically present throughout the novel. Needlework is the story of Ces and her mother Laura in their attempts to continue life in the aftermath of escaping domestic violence and abuse at the hands of Ces’s father. At the launch, speakers such as Siobhan Parkinson and Sarah Crossan spoke of Needlework addressing the topic of domestic abuse with subtlety. Deirdre Sullivan drove home the point with the sharpest of needles – for the sharpest needle may cause the least pain, but it’s the most unnerving. Ces was angry at her mother for not fixing everything in their lives after they escaped. Anger signposted by Ces referring to her as ‘Laura’, exasperation and hopelessness by ‘herself’, and, simply, ‘Mam’ when she felt she could love her again.
To escape the life she was facing – the life where Ces and Laura’s roles were reversed, and Ces was parent to an ungrateful child – Ces longs to be a tattoo artist. Punctured with an italicised narrative that shows the depths of Ces’s tattoo research, Needlework paints a new focus on what tattoos truly mean to those who choose body art. No longer the identifying feature of a criminal or a sailor, tattoos are precious reminders of hopefulness. They are reminders of a moment in time where a person felt something, or meant something, or did something they felt was worth remembering forever. Most importantly, they are the scars we choose. Ces had no control over the domestic violence and abuse she and her mother faced at the hands of her father. Ces was helpless to the scars he inflicted, physically and emotionally. Tattoos were a sign of strength. A chosen scar, carefully drawn, prepared, executed. A meaningful scar. As somebody with tattoos and who plans to get more, the significance placed on the function of inking things inside your skin was beautiful, and part of my hope for this book is that Needlework can enable non-tattooed individuals to understand that for many, tattoos are not a trend or a fashion statement. They are a carefully placed, carefully selected scar chosen to be a reminder of survival. Of existing against the odds. Of making it through the years no matter what was thrown at you.
Recovery from domestic abuse is not simple. It is long and drawn out and for many without the right support, it may never happen. Ces was left with a new identity – her new school friends call her Ces, not Frances, and she accepts it in the same hollow manner in which she accepted the reality of her new life. She frequently thinks about how things are better now than they were before, but with more than a trace of irony, for things are barely better, merely different. Safer. But perhaps not safe at all. The uncertainty which faces Ces and her mother is tangible throughout Needlework – we, the readers, are the outsiders looking in. We can see their pain and yet we can do nothing to help them. Nothing to fix it. Nothing to aid in the healing, or in the process. They both assert that they will not go to the police, will not drag themselves through the courts. Laura is still looking for a scapegoat. An explanation as to why the things that happened, happened. Sometimes that scapegoat is Ces. Sometimes she blames Ces for being raped. For taking her husband away. For losing her new, far more supportive boyfriend. Other times, she is rational. She loves her daughter. We are reading the story through Ces’s eyes, and it is easy to blame Laura for not pulling herself together. It is easy to resent her for giving in. And in that, it is easy to see how in real life, domestic abuse survivors often deal not just with the abuse, but with the judgements of others. The ‘why can’t you just’s the ‘why didn’t you just’s the ‘how could you just’s that probably leaves the mouths of strangers who have no idea what they have gone through. Who have no idea what it’s like. Who haven’t a shred of ability to place themselves in a domestic abuse survivor’s shoes and see that the mere act of getting up in the morning is a testimony to their character, whether it’s a case that they are still in the throes of domestic abuse, or the aftermath.
Possibly the clearest element of Needlework that I adored was that Ces was not broken. She was in a relationship, of a sort. She was, in spite of everything, still searching and trying to find who she really was. She did not shy away from sex
(it is but a trope people put in place of sexual abuse survivors – that they no longer want sex, and if they do, then they must not have really been abused. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ victim. Not only that, victims often do not want to be seen as or thought of as victims). I hated Tom (the ‘boyfriend’) for not recognising how much she needed help. I hated how he used her. I hated how she pretended to use him. Ces referred to him as ‘my Tom’. A sliver of hope amongst the sadness. But when Tom dumped her, it did not break her. She was sad, yes, but it did not break her. She did not let it. Although Ces’s future is unclear, at the close of the novel it was my hope that someday she’d meet someone, perhaps in college, who would have the patience and understanding, not to fix her, but to allow her to heal while offering her all the love and support that they could muster. I don’t necessarily believe in happy endings, but I do believe in hope.
They say to never try to fill a niche in the market when it comes to publishing. With Needlework, however, this niche was necessarily filled. 1 in 5 women in Ireland have been abused by a current or former partner. That means that within your circle of friends, there may be at least one person within that who has suffered as Ces and Laura have. There may be someone within your family suffering. My hopes for Needlework are that the support keeps growing, and that the message rings clear. Girls like Ces were under represented. Deirdre has given them a voice. A crystal clear, jarring, yet beautiful voice. A voice I hope carries Needlework overseas, and encourages others to speak out, to seek out help, or to offer help where it is needed.