Guilt, someone famously said, is a useless emotion. In our greed-is-good corporate world, where we are seldom forced to think through the consequences of our actions for those around us, it seems faintly antiquated. Yet guilt is still an urgent force in the contemporary psyche, cementing couples in unhealthy unions, or forcing them apart after expectations fail. The territory of guilt is explored in two powerful new novels.
In Glen Duncan's impressive Love Remains, guilt serves as a punitive force that drives a young husband to abandon his wife after she is brutally raped. His inability to resolve the part he imagines playing in her tragedy furthers his decline and dictates a bleak future. Duncan looks beyond the limits of love to explore that dark and uncomfortable territory in relationships where male desire and female expectation clash. Duncan's first novel, Hope, was about a "new man" with a two-mag-a-day porn habit. His second novel deals with even darker themes. Writing with subtlety, he unearths the hidden sexual violence within a couple's relationship and explores its implications.
The narrative ignites when Chloe, a young historian working at the British Museum, is sexually assaulted in the London flat that she shares with her husband, Nicholas. After returning from a one-night stand with a woman in his office, he finds Chloe lying in a pool of blood and rings emergency services. Unable to cope with the aftermath of her assault, he flees to New York where he finds a predatory older woman to inflict the psychic punishment he hopes will bring him absolution.
The novel slowly unveils Nicholas's relationship with Chloe, from their meeting at university to their marriage and the unease that creeps into it. Chloe longs for a child. Her desire fuels their lovemaking. But Nicholas conceals his doubts and the truth that he is infertile. The gaps between them grow. Nicholas begins to flirt with his assistant in the literary agency where he works, while the sex with Chloe grows subtly more violent. Chloe emerges from her traumas, stitched together with cat gut and a new-found thirst for living. But Nicholas is lost to her and to himself.
A sense of a new landscape becoming possible after old certainties have brutally ended is also an important theme of Charlotte Grimshaw's Guilt. The sexually ambiguous Leon has a platonic relationship with Maria, a law student who shares his wild humour. Together they create their own private world. Their emotional intimacy is contrasted with the callous indifference of Maria's lover, Marcus, who "uses love" but can't feel it. The see-saw of lover and friend ends when Maria witnesses Leon being killed on a wet Auckland street by a hit-and-run driver. From there, she must confront her guilt about surviving.
Grimshaw grapples, like Duncan, with the character's realisation of her fragility and lack of control in the world. After Leon's death, her future is rewritten with a powerful new knowledge: "that you make everything happen, that if you'd done things differently the whole world would have been different." In the end, she must learn to accept a painful truth: that there was nothing she could have done to prevent her friend's death.