Passages by Ann Quin
Review by S. D. Stewart
A woman and a man travel in an unnamed region that might be the Mediterranean. The woman is searching for her missing brother, a Communist party member who has possibly been ‘disappeared’. All she has is blurred and incomplete photos suggesting a faint likeness. The man she travels with is her lover who is depressed and seeking meaning in his life. The story is told in alternating sections: the woman’s first-person narrative (both I and We); and the man’s journal complete with marginal notes primarily regarding applicable cultural and mythological allusions. Both sections also dip in and out of third-person perspective, perhaps as a way for the characters to distance themselves from what is happening in real time: namely, the incremental disintegration of their relationship.
The novel begins with the woman’s narrative before switching to the man’s journal, where previously described events are mirrored and reflected back to the reader for contrast. Her narrative often portrays him as somewhat secretive and superficial, as if acting a role, but access to his thoughts and reactions to her via his journal allow us to see him as more vulnerable and less self-assured. As the two of them struggle in their own ways to maintain their individuality while still participating in their shared life, the outside forces of political turmoil and their sense of being strangers in a strange land (while possibly being followed by agents) work against them. The woman is driven on by her search for her brother, who she now believes is or was held on a shadowy island housing an internment camp for dissidents where horrible acts of torture have occurred. The man torn between helping her find her brother and fulfilling his deepest longing to be somewhere else, studies his dreams, cutting them up and merging them together in a search for answers.
Mythology mingles with reality, eroticism blends with violence, confinement contrasts with escape, and madness clings like lichen to both characters as they operate within segments of time that expand and contract with no sign of warning. At one point the man wonders, ‘What if one loses all one’s demons—surely new ones will leap in?’ The book revolves around these demons and the infinite race to stay just ahead of them. But it also points to times when one must turn and grapple with them, for better or for worse.