*You can listen to P.K. Lynch talking about Armadillos on the Scots Whay Hae! Podcast by clicking here…
In our recent podcast with novelist Iain Maloney we spoke about a writer’s responsibility when tackling certain subjects. In Maloney’s case, his novel The Waves Burn Bright deals with events surrounding the Piper Alpha North Sea Oil Platform tragedy, and he talked about the importance of making sure his research was thorough and his prose unsensational so as to avoid any possible accusations of exploitation or disrespect.
It’s something that James Robertson and Kirstin Innes have also spoken to us about with reference to their novels The Professor Of Truth and Fishnet, books which examine the Lockerbie bombing and the sex industry respectively. Writers have a responsibility to their subject as well as their readers, and with some subjects that responsibility should be taken very seriously indeed. It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off, to tell an engaging story while respecting those who you are wishing to draw attention to, but when a writer gets it right it can be far more affecting than any mere reportage or documentary.
Armadillos is the story of 15-year-old Texan Aggie, who is described as “a ‘sub’ from a ‘sub’ family”, which means she is at the bottom of a food chain where food is scarce to begin with. Literary theorist Antonio Gramsci used the term ‘subaltern’ to refer to those who belonged to groups of people denied power and wealth by the ruling classes. They are those who struggle to have their voices heard, so often cease trying. If you are considered a ‘sub’ within such a group, then in common parlance you are viewed within, and often without, that group as the ‘lowest of the low’.
This position is often used to, if not justify abuse and exploitation, then attempt to explain it, often by people who know nothing about such an existence except what they read or view from the comfort and safety of their own homes. The lack of respect and understanding of those sexually and/or psychologically abused remains prevalent in a world which gives lip service to caring, but which consistently proves it does not.
The opening chapters are brutal in establishing this world. Lynch sets out systematic abuse within a family, but does through the eyes of Aggie at a point in her life where the difference between what she has brought herself to believe and what the terrible reality is are too great to bear any longer. Her family’s secrets and lies prove to be on a different scale to most. Lynch portrays Aggie as a heartbreaking mixture of innocence and streets smarts, the latter of which she obtains quickly, and out of necessity, before our eyes.
Starting with her method of travel, she soon finds she can manipulate others, something which brings her a mix of short-term pride and more lasting guilt and shame. Her’s is a narrative voice which is constantly changing as the book progresses, and at a pace which could have rendered the character unlikely if not unbelievable, but Lynch manages it beautifully, and it is Aggie’s voice above all else which makes Armadillos such a powerful and unforgettable book.
Lynch has also captured a sense of place which is far more than geographical. The book sizzles in the Texas heat, but there is also a southern gothic tone which has more than a touch of Tennessee Williams about it, or Carson McCullers’ novella The Ballad Of The Sad Cafe. There are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, echoes of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, but if that story had been told from Dolores Haze’s point of view rather than Humbert Humbert’s. The heat, the light, the lightly surreal touches such as ‘rubber armadillos’, and the conspiracy theories – they all make for a suitably unsettling backdrop as events unfold.
As she attempts to leave her past behind, Aggie meets a memorable coterie of complex characters. At the beginning she may not know who she is, but as she moves among increasingly stranger strangers she soon begins to realise what she is not. With names such as “Freak” and “The Beast'” they are initially as difficult to get to know for the reader as they are for Aggie. They too are individuals who are are reluctant to let people get close, and Lynch reveals their layers slowly which gives them greater resonance when motives and backgrounds are uncovered than would otherwise be the case.
Armadillos has a cinematic quality which surely must pique a filmmaker’s interest at some point. There is the widescreen feel of Wim Venders’ Paris, Texas or David Lynch’s Wild At Heart on display, and there are characters who, while often despicable beyond thought, are so clearly drawn as to make them three-dimensional on the page. Some could have tipped over into stereotype, yet the writer never allows that to happen, giving you just enough to know that everyone here has a story to tell, it’s just that this time it is Aggie’s turn.
As with those novels mentioned at the top of the page, I’m certain this was not an easy book to write or research, and in the afterword to the novel Lynch talks about feeling a responsibility to the victims of sexual and psychological abuse, stating; “My biggest wish for Armadillos is for survivors of abuse to feel I’ve been sensitive and truthful.” Lynch remains as good as her word to the very end. Helping to understand terrible things is something written fiction can do better than any other art form, and Armadillos is a reminder of this. It is not always an easy read, and nor should it be, but any novel which makes you think more keenly on a subject is a success, and Armadillos is certainly that.
Below is the audio version of this review: