I felt such a strong emotional connection with Zoë Duncan’s debut novel “The Shifting Pools.” She imaginatively articulates something in the content and structure of this book that I’ve been grappling with for a long time. I’ve often wondered how it is that the fear and pain we feel after experiencing trauma (whether that means being hurt emotionally or physically or unexpectedly losing the people we’re closest to) transforms the way we perceive and process the world. It’s like a kind of poisonous fuel that kindles our creativity in ways which are both beautiful and terrifying. It colours our sense of reality and allows us to cope.
The author shows this process in telling the story of a girl named Eve whose idyllic childhood in her Middle Eastern home comes to a violently abrupt end. As the sole survivor of a brutal attack, she grows up and makes a new life for herself in London but finds her sense of reality has been inexorably altered. Her subsequent journey is utterly surprising and captivating. Duncan’s narrative effortlessly moves between the internal and external reality of this deeply traumatized individual. It’s as if she finds a new language to express the inexpressible. This heartrending story will transport you to an imaginative new landscape that expresses the true nature of our everyday reality.
The novel alternates between Eve’s emotionally-brittle life in London, a fantastic land beset by malevolent darkness, anxiety-fuelled dreams and quotes from a wide variety of music, poetry and nonfiction. This might sound like a chaotic juxtaposition of elements, but they are built naturally into the story in sync with Eve’s journey towards living with her past and fully inhabiting herself as an individual. When Eve first arrived in the UK after the horror of her loss she’s taken to live with her aunt and uncle. It’s unfortunate that her aunt Vi “was a firm believer in life forging on ahead as a remedy for all ills.” While this (very English) coping method enables Eve to carry on in her life it suppresses her complex emotions. These seep out in the forms of dreams and a turbulent alternate world which she eventually physically enters.
The danger with representing such corners of the subconscious in a novel is that they can become laden with superficial symbolism. I know a lot of readers are understandably bothered when a story stops to describe the dream of a character. But, in this case, it felt to me like Eve’s dreams beautifully and dramatically demonstrate the ever-present sense of panic which pulses beneath the surface of her being. They show a disarmingly creative variety of themes which also fascinatingly demonstrate the fluidity of identity. Within Eve’s dreams she changes effortlessly between being a girl, a mother and a boy. This poignantly conveys how at heart we’re not tied to being any one gender or age or role within a family. This reminded me somewhat of Susan Barker's magnificent novel "The Incarnations" where a couple are reincarnated over centuries and change frequently from men to women in each new life.
The author also acknowledges within the story how the fantasy drama of rescuing an innocent girl named Alette from dark forces transparently relates to Eve’s emotional turbulence. When Eve returns from her imagined world of Enanti at one point her cousin remarks “A quest was typical, she said, a perfect symbol of our need to find something precious. And saving Alette was deeply linked to my guilt over Laila. Even I had known that, as I was dreaming.” I bought into this fantasy world because it felt so real to Eve’s struggle and the author interlaces Eve’s adventure with a displaced people with such fascinating ideas. It does become problematic at certain points in the novel where the flow of Eve’s story must be interrupted to explain the “rules” of this fantastic landscape. However, this doesn’t detract from the power of Eve’s transformation as a person.
Part of the reason why I loved this novel is that it harkened back to when I was a teenage boy reading fantasy adventure stories like Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, but it brings a sophisticated psychology and real world currency to an unreal world. On the outside Eve looks like a conventional person but she muses “Perhaps if I had looked like an outsider, the sense of dislocation I felt would not have jarred so much. But nothing marked me out.” She carefully hides her physical and emotional scars, but because she conceals the imperfect parts of herself she tends towards erratic and self-destructive behaviour. Her path towards acknowledging and living with her past is a journey which gripped and moved me. This is a novel rich in heart. It beautifully shows how we creatively reinvent ourselves and the world around us in a way which liberates us from the cruelties of reality and those who seek to diminish us.