(El Salvador 1967-68)
The World Against Her Skin is an extraordinary work, written by a mature, highly published author. John Thorndike defines his book as a “Son’s Novel,” a hybrid memoir/novel or “biographical novel.” It is his endeavor to know his mother, as he openly states in his “Author’s Note, “I want to know everything about my mother,” especially the secrets that were kept from him as her son.
He inhabits this woman character in order to know her. His are the height of literary goals; find truth through your imagination, cross boundaries through sympathy and empathy, and do it because you need to for survival. It beautifully flies in the face of current stricture to only write what you can know as determined by your gender, race, ethnicity, class and so on.
Thorndike completely succeeds in capturing feelings that many can’t articulate, nor are courageous enough, to depict full-frontal lust, and unabating desire in women. In this he succeeds as the modern-day Flaubert of Madam Bovary, or D. H. Lawrence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
This book is not for the faint of heart, those who find it too dangerous to look at certain aspects of sexuality and addiction, the genesis thereof, the attraction, the damage done, and the insight and openness gained through hard-life experience.
Once an editor said to me, “I never thought I would feel there was too much sex in a manuscript, but you might want to pull back a little on this one.” This was my initial feeling as I read the first third of Thorndike’s novel. Enough, I thought, and then abruptly the narrative turned to other matters in this woman’s life, and I saw how crucial it was that he had laid the foundation of transgressive sex. It informed her decisions, some terrible, others admirable; her behavior caused havoc to her family, but in the end provided the gift of openness to her children’s choices. As the son, who I presume is modeled on the author says, “You’re a good mother when it counts,” and indeed she is.
Virginia, or Ginny as she’s called, is a woman, who has grown and learned empathy for others — unhappily not so for herself — through her own tribulations and losses. Born before World War II, a quite brilliant woman ahead of her times, constricted by 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s mores, and suffering from unrealized goals, she is able to change with the contemporary climate and accept the gay life of one son, and adjust to and support the counter-cultural, communal life of the younger son.
What Ginny can’t accomplish is to sustain happiness for herself. She comes close in her late-in-life Peace Corps stint in Chile, but falls back into addiction and depression afterward. The scenes of her recurring falls from grace are as harrowing for the reader as they are for the younger son and sometimes narrator. His are the eyes and insights through which we see her struggle, even and especially when the story is told through her direct and interior point-of-view.
What I found particularly interesting and astute is Thorndike’s depiction of the fall-out from two early sexual episodes, first a rather subtle incestuous abuse by her father, followed by inappropriate enticement by a teacher in her adolescence. The author allows that those premature encounters with sex have not made her “frigid” in adulthood, but rather over-eroticized her desires and pre-determined her need to engage in the obsessional sex that in the end ruins her marriage, severely troubles her children, and causes her a lifetime of depression and addiction.
Thorndike is a brave writer, whose gift is an exemplary talent for negative capability, defined as a writer’s ability, “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously, to accept uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” according to the English poet John Keats.
I would follow Thorndike anywhere as a writer, and intend to do so by picking up another of his books.
Reviewed by Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
To further fulfill its goals to encourage, recognize and promote Peace Corps writers, RPCV Writers & Readers, the newsletter that was the precursor of PeaceCorpsWriters.org and PeaceCorpsWorldwide.org, presented its first annual awards for outstanding writing in 1990.