Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Short Story:Singing my Sister Down by Margo Lanagan

Singing my Sister Down is the first story in the collection entitled Black juice (full review to come soon). It's undoubtedly the best story, and also the one that's haunted me for weeks since I read it. The basic premise is that a young girl has been sentenced to die for the murder of her husband, and that execution takes the form of a slow swallowing by a tar pit, surrounded by her family, whilst the victim's family look on. It takes her all day to be fully swallowed by the tar, and her family accompany her and, very strangely, almost have a party, with food, chat and singing!

Now whilst this could be seen as too unrealistic to be disturbing, the way it is written makes it seem all too real. It doesn't have a definitive setting, although there seems to be a chief, which would suggest some kind of African culture, but also flutes and guns and crabs which would suggest a more western setting. This mix of cultures, and also mixing the familiar with the unknown is what makes this story disturbing. Any concept of; this couldn't happen here or this wouldn't happen now is not present. It is just an event, with no definitive time or place so we are left totally to focus on the feelings of the family.

The story is seen through the eyes of the younger brother of the condemned girl, and it is clear that we are supposed to feel the confusion, bafflement and horror that he feels. But although the story is narrated by him, we do get to see the event through the eyes of various family members. We feel the panic and fright that Ik feels, as well as the pain her mother feels.

But although the story itself disturbed me greatly, it is the attitudes of the spectators that give this story it's power. Although narrated by the young boy, the joy and party atmosphere of the spectators to this bizarre execution is terrifying.

"Everything went slippery in my mind after that. We were being watched so hard! Even though it was quiet out here, the pothering wind brought crowd-mumble and scraps of music and smoke our way, so often that we couldn't be private and be ourselves."

"and they tell me I made an awful noise that frightened everybody right up to the chief and that the husbands parents thought I was a very ill-brought up boy for upsetting them instead of allowing them to serenely and superiorly watch justice be done for their lost son."

I could say lots more about this, but it is only a short story, and I should leave some of it for you to read for yourselves! And it is worth reading, but very disturbing!


The Reader said...

If there's a chief then it could be anywhere, not just Africa. It could Oceania, Native America, Aboriginal Australia, Indigenous South America, Mongolia, even Celtic. Why did you automatically assume it was African? Is it because it was a disturbing ritual?

The Reader
I'm a Bookworm

Jo said...

Hi, you're right, it could be any of those cultures, or many others. I said African because that was the impression I got. Not because it was disturbing, but simply because it was the first tribal nation that occurred to me. I think that what culture it is supposed to be referencing is not overly relevant, it is just the merging of different cultures that is important to the story.

nikhil said...

any online link to the story?

Anonymous said...

The author is Australian. It could be an Aborigine custom that is being played out here.

Ramona said...

Lanagan herself said the story came to her from watching a documentary film about an African village.

Emma said...

Margo Lanagan actually did state in an interview with Lisa Morton, that this story has connections to African culture: "It was inspired by a documentary about similar tar pits near a village in Africa. I didn’t want to pin it down to a particular culture, but the whiffs of specificity that are there are mostly African influenced." So, I believe you were right in assuming that :)