Book review: Nina X, by Ewan Morrison

Ewan Morrison
Ewan Morrison
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There are some novels which are euphemistically described as “lightly fictionalised”; usually when the occurrences in the book have a close relationship to real-world events. The other euphemism is “loosely inspired by” to refer to, say, Every Man For Himself by Beryl Bainbridge, or Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, or Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost.

Nina X does have its correlative in the real world – the horrific story of the London-based Aravindan Balakrishnan – self-styled Comrade Bala – who in 2016 was sentenced to 23 years for the abuse and mistreatment of the women in his Maoist cult, and the imprisonment of his own daughter. But it is something other as well in that it stretches, explores, undermines, recapitulates and emotionally extends what we might naively call “the truth” as only fiction can.

I have written before that I think Morrison is “the most fluent and intelligent writer of his generation here in Scotland”: this book is his best to date. It is challenging, horrific and visceral and it manages this with a very small palette indeed. It writes in miniature about the most massive actions. Most importantly, apart from being humane and experimental, it is also deeply, deeply serious.

Nina is one of “the Collective”, which is ruled with discipline by Comrade Chen and yet preaches total liberation. Nina, when we first meet her, has never known anything except the Collective and its few remaining members, Comrades Ruth (who is strict), Uma (who is cuddly), Jeni (who is flaky) and Zana (a former junkie with dangerous knowledge about the outside world). The novel is bifurcated between Nina in the present, as she negotiates a world she finds frightening called Freedom, and Nina in the past, where she was not even Nina but “The Project”. Comrade Chen wants her as a perfect tabula rasa, a blank slate, without any received opinions about patriarchy, capitalism, privacy, family or limits.

She is to be the new human of their future, even if it means that she is lied to about London having been soaked in radiation, that “fascist Pigs” will get her should she ever try to cross the threshold, and that the NHS is the equivalent to torture.

Her few joys are few indeed. She likes the pigeons who she names after socialist thinkers, and she has a surreptitious copy of National Geographic , a comic version of The Wizard Of Oz, missing the final chapter, and a few scraps of a fashion magazine, which prompt her to pity the poor women in “spike shoes” and few clothes, and wonder whether she too might one day be a wife or a mistress.

The greatest theft from Nina is a very simple word: “I”. The process of indoctrination involves writing and writing and writing, and then editing and editing and editing, to remove the counter-revolutionary self. In this regard the book is profoundly metatextual. “Writing is part of the problem and it is the last basement to escape from.” Parts of the text are printed in greyscale, and only slowly does the reader realise that the erasing of the past is being enacted on the page itself. It is also avant-garde in the manner in which it deals with desperate dissociation. It does so on the level of grammar. The newly “free” Nina has a haunting, lilting syntax. She has already memorised most texts by Mao, Lenin and Marx, and has a similar capacity to fit herself into other people’s words.

In one section it appears like this: “Nina said, There is no radiation in the sky, there is no radiation in the sky, but Nina could feel it through the car window and Nina was getting worse and the magic of saying My current symptoms are just a conditioned response and they will lessen as I desensitise myself, wasn’t working any more.”

There is an eerie, post-human quality to this novel. How can you write a book where the central character is split and multiple, damaged and possibly dangerous, where her own story and self is constantly overwritten?

Part of why this, I think, had be a novel is that it relishes its own ambiguities. The characters in the world outside are usually referred to with monikers – Support Work Cas, Charity Sonia, Social Work Phil and suchlike. They are as much manipulations as the utopian, beleaguered Comrades; and “Freedom” in the real world is as constrained as it was with the Collective. There is a certain degree of humour amidst the ferocious nastiness, as when Nina wonders whether her Virgin phone has to be given back after she has sex for the first time. But what lingers – what stings – is the bravado of finding a fractured voice for the broken voiceless, and the bravery in making Nina not a simple victim. She is, to use the post-structuralist way of saying something and also its opposite, naïve. State-ist intervention and Kool-Aid cults become their own dark mirrors here, locked in a pas de deux of telling you what you should want, believe and do.

Morrison has long been interested in alternative ways of life, from communes in Close Your Eyes to polyamory in Ménage. This is his most brutal and most innovative novel. Judges of prizes, take note. This is a kind of King Lear for our sorry and sad times. - Stuart Kelly

Nina X, by Ewan Morrison, Fleet, £14.99