With all the turmoil, storm and stress of recent times one literary voice has notably, and unexpectedly, been missing from much of the public and artistic debate – that of Ewan Morrison. While that’s not entirely fair as he has been working widely in film and TV, it is with his fiction that he has previously made the most telling and memorable contributions to the cultural conversation.
His most recent novel, Close Your Eyes, was published in 2013, which, considering the seismic shifts socially and politically (globally and locally) since, makes it seem a lifetime ago. This makes his return to publication most welcome as there are few writers who deal as intelligently, courageously, and often confrontationally, with the modern world as Morrison does.
All of which applies to his latest novel, Nina X. It’s a fictionalised account of what became known as the ‘Lambeth Slavery Case’, where, in 2015, self-styled Maoist cult leader Comrade Bala (real name Aravindan Balakrishnan) was sent to prison for abuse and false imprisonment. Morrison’s collective consists of Comrade Chen, four women followers whom he has a powerful and dangerous hold over, and a child who they view as ‘The Project’ – the person into whom they pour their hopes and dreams of a better future.
We first meet that child years later, now known by others, if not yet herself, as Nina, trying to come to terms with her first days of ‘Freedom’ after years kept prisoner. The novel is constructed from entries in Nina’s journals – numbered jotters that often have addendums from her ‘Comrades’ where they offer ideas and suggestions as to how her behaviour, and each other’s, should be modified. Certain words and sections are faint on the page, difficult to read and understand. It is as if they are being whispered, or fading from Nina’s mind, and the story has to be pieced together as scraps are discarded, lost, and found, and Nina’s fractured mind and memory offer varied, and often conflicting, explanations of people and events.
In particular, there is a terrible incident which Nina witnesses and which the Comrades try to make her forget, or at least re-remember – with self-preservation trumping nurturance. Morrison has always had a keen eye for portraying human weakness, and piercing pomposity, and the Comrades descent from high-and-mighty pontificating to petty squabbling, and increasingly desperate, and violent, measures to try and regain some control over the situation, is as believable as it is dispiriting. However, things are little improved when Nina becomes caught up in the world of social services, hospitals, and the law where different rules and regulations are enforced. Morrison is interested in constructs, philosophies and faiths of all kinds, but more so with how the human element is always destined to undermine, compromise and ultimately sabotage them.
Nina X is not simply an examination of nature versus nurture, but rather how a vulnerable mind can be pulled apart by conflict and confusion, and that human frailties (a term which seems horribly inadequate) such as envy, lust, jealously, hubris, anger and pride guarantee failure. The portrayal of Nina/The Project is as complex as it is heart breaking, with a long-suppressed individual voice trying to break through, to be heard and understood. In that sense Nina reminds me of Ron Butlin’s Morris Magellan in The Sound Of My Voice trying to get to a personal truth that has been suppressed for years in an attempt to survive.
It is also a novel about the importance of language and the written word, how they are used to understand, but also to obfuscate – deliberately or otherwise. The nomenclature of people and things takes on greater significance in a world as limited and suffocating as Nina’s. The naming of pets as Gramsci and Rosa Luxemburg, or the forbidden contraband of Dairy Milk, Coca Cola, and glossy magazines, all carry multiple meanings. Nina has been told her whole life that some words are acceptable while others come at a cost. With her newfound freedom she finds that it’s not just the rules that have changed, the language has too, and even how she refers to herself becomes a battle.
With Nina X (as with Close Your Eyes, to which ‘Nina’ makes a great companion piece) Ewan Morrison challenges readers to think about what writing is for, believing that an engaged writer has a responsibility to address difficult issues. Some may regard him as a professional contrarian, using his mastery of the written word and ability to understand all sides of an argument to push people’s buttons for his own pleasure, but that would be to underestimate him as a writer, and a thinker. Rather he challenges prevailing cultural trends and beliefs, no matter who holds them. If you have a sacred cow to hand you might want to secure it as Morrison takes great delight in running them through, which makes him one of the exhilarating and exacting writers around.
As artistic as he is antagonistic, he believes in intellectual discourse and the rigorous thinking that accompanies it. Nina X is a reminder that the best writing should challenge and confront, and that there are few who do this as well as Ewan Morrison. He asks the questions that others avoid, or would never even think of asking, and offers no easy answers in return. This doesn’t always make his novels easy reads, but it does make them important ones and I know which I prefer every time.