23 March 2017
Martin John, Anakana Schofield
Published by And Other Stories
I picked up Martin John after hearing Anakana Schofield interviewed on Woman’s Hour. It was a very interesting interview and immediately had me ordering the book. In hindsight, I am surprised by the squeamish response of the presenter, but we are in an age when only brave writers approach such subjects. It is as if in this time, not even books should imagine that which does harm and it is better to inhabit a bland goodness rather than risk a taint. This makes Scholfield’s subject unusual and because of that, it is an important book as much as a fascinating and enjoyable one. It is a book about the eponymous Martin John, a man held equally between fetish and phobia. A man whose sexual pleasure has been forged into an objectifying, self-gratifying, lonely mode of expression. He is a sex offender.
He is beset by compulsion yet not the passive victim of it. He likes the discomfort he causes. A troubling refrain rings through the book – ‘harm was done.’ There is an ambiguity about the harm as we wonder if harm was done to Martin John before it was passed on by him. There is no obvious sympathy inveigled for him. He has a monstrous, self-serving, violent and abusive attitude to women and easy compassion is not what we are delivered.
And yet, a strange kind of sympathy grows. It is so well handled that though we are not invited to forgive, though there is avoidance of either moral outrage or bleeding heart excusing of his trapped, damaged responses to the world, we find a strange compassion for Martin John. And Mam, beset by a frantic, churchy hypocrisy, a handling that knows the damage but allows a kind of faith-fuelled blinding to dictate her responses. Hide it, hide it. Stay out of trouble. Don’t do harm, but go away to London so harm being done will not be seen. Thus the culpability of society, its colossal and time-worn collusion in all manner of abuse and sexual hypocrisy has a little place at the table.
Apart from the reading of this book, the enjoyment of its bleak humour and subtle balancing that neither invites rash judgement or simplistic exoneration, Schofield gets my gratitude for writing a book that is bold enough to go into murky, difficult areas. It is a book that reminds us that literature must be the place where boundaries are wide, where all is possible, where we are given the wonderful and disquieting gift of temporarily inhabiting dark, confusing, uncomfortable places. And where the invitation is not necessarily to bay for blood the instant we get there. Terrific.