REVIEW by Will Ford (Published online by New Welsh Review, print version subscription details below)
by Ivy Alvarez
Disturbance is a precisely constructed, unflinchingly observant, heartbreaking and terrifying novel of poems, a powerfully delivered and devastating firestorm of words. It portrays the build-up to and fallout from the murderous and suicidal conclusion to family life. This family has been bruised by domestic abuse, broken by divorce and ultimately obliterated by the words ‘you can’t keep my children from me… they’re mine’.
Beginning at the inquest into these tragic central events, Ivy Alvarez presents a story told in non-chronological kaleidoscopic fragments of minute detail and raw emotion. These include an emergency services operator helplessly hearing screams and shotgun blasts down the telephone line; a grandmother thinking of buying a carpet to cover bloodstains; the mistress of the murderer suffering scapegoat-hungry media coverage; Jane, scrabbling in vain to hide from a long feared fate, and Tony, a violent control freak, blaming his victims for his actions.
Over the course of forty-four poems, the reader is taken forwards and backwards in time, each poem helping to construct the wider story and often simultaneously offering a snapshot portrait of the principal character in their own words. This results in a provocative array of stylistic approaches, including a dark appropriation of the Ladybird Readers: ‘See Jane run. Watch Dick run. Watch Dick chase Jane. Watch Dick chase / Jane through their house. Dick has a gun. Run Jane run.’
Within this ‘verse novel’, Alvarez shows admirable artistic control and a remarkable capacity for empathy. She has crafted a range of voices that, even in the briefest of appearances, reveal another facet of the wider narrative and another example of just how far the hurtful consequences of terrible acts can travel. Telling the story in verse form creates just enough distance to prevent Disturbance becoming too emotionally overwhelming to read. This method also reveals a terrible beauty within the blackest shadows of human experience.
Disturbance is a fully ‘adult’ book which may require some readers to look themselves in the eye and ask if they would have acted differently from the neighbour who didn’t want to get involved or the policemen who didn’t rush towards the sound of a shot. So authentically self-protective are some of the characters that a childlike feeling can descend on the reader seeking the need for a hero.
Among the visceral responses Disturbance provokes is a sense of helplessness. In this harsh reality, apparently definitive signs of a tragedy waiting to happen become visible only in hindsight. Wisely, then, Alvarez does not seek the moral high ground of pointing out what people should have done or said. Rather, we are offered authentically painted human responses to the kind of events most of us will be lucky enough never to be caught up in. Alvarez does not seek to suggest how to prevent these kind of horrors. As comforting as it might be to tell ourselves otherwise, such terrible acts occur because one person chooses to commit them. Tony’s choice is his alone, whatever means he uses to justifying himself:
than be far less.
So common is the real-life scenario of a divorced father saying ‘You can’t keep my children from me’ that Disturbance could be justified solely as a humane parable and warning about the dark places such a statement may lead. But the skill and imagination with which Alvarez approaches her subject matter from so many perspectives also makes the book an adventure for the mind. This is achieved without ever engendering the feeling that it is exploitative of suffering, and Alvarez leaves plenty of room for readers to bring their own imaginations into play.
Each reader will have their own individual response, just as Alvarez’ characters react individually to these terrible events. The timeless value of storytelling is that it can transport us into the lives, experiences and minds of others, and hold up a mirror to our assumptions and moral certainties. Alvarez has taken a long, courageous look into such a mirror. The reflection we see may bring us close to weeping for humanity. But not to giving up on it.