It took me awhile to read this book because of how vivid the descriptions and the content was. As someone who has been a victim of rape and sexual assault I could not help but allow tears to fall down my face as I read this powerful story about personal trauma after being raped and the struggles in recovering from this trauma. As someone who has experienced this in my life, all I can say is that I feel author Winnie M Li’s pain and the character she portrayed in her novel Dark Chapter – Vivian.  It takes a lot of strength to write something based on personal trauma and this novel not only talks about the trauma, but it also highlights the struggles of the recovery and healing process. It also shines a light on hope and this is what I got out of it – that no matter the struggles, there is light at the end of the tunnel. 

You may be wondering, the novel Dark Chapter, what is it about? Well, it follows the story of Taiwanese American woman Vivian who gets brutally raped as she walks around in Belfast. Here are a few lines which really sum up what the book is about (via Amazon):

Vivian is a cosmopolitan Taiwanese-American tourist who often escapes her busy life in London through adventure and travel. Johnny is a 15-year-old Irish teenager, living a neglected life on the margins of society. He has grown up in a family where crime is customary, violence is a necessity, and everything–and anyone–can be yours for the taking.

As Vivian looks to find her calling professionally, she delights in exploring foreign countries, rolling hillsides, and new cultures. And as a young, single woman, she has grown used to experiencing life on her own. But all of that changes when, on one bright spring afternoon in West Belfast, Vivian’s path collides with Johnny and culminates in a horrifying act of violence. 

The descriptions of the attack are brutal and real and it was hard for me to read personally as a former victim but I read through it because that to me is the strength of the book and of Li, that she is able to recreate her own real personal trauma into fiction and share it with the world through the eyes of Vivian. The character of Vivian is based off Li’s personal trauma of being raped back in 2008 when she was 29 whilst walking through Colin Glen Forest Park in Belfast. Her rapist was 15 years old and before any trial happened related to her rape case, he plead guilty and only got 8 years jail for what he subjected Li to. Li hid her pain and trauma the day after her rape and attended a premiere of a film in Belfast. Years of PTSD and anxiety followed in the recovery and healing process in what Li and the novel’s character Vivian went through. I too experienced the same motions for years after my own experiences of rape and assault. 

Li writes with authenticity and her messages about the trauma women go through after being a victim of rape and assault really brings home the importance of the #MeToo and #TimesUp global campaigns. Li also goes deeper than just talking about Vivian’s trauma, but she also goes into the mind of the rapist in her novel using the fictional character of Johnny, a 15-year-old Irish traveler who literally lives on the margins of society. Some people may read this and feel that this second narrative diminishes the significance of the novel and of Vivian’s experience, and that it may be re-traumatizing. But that is not how I read it. I feel Li did so, to show that the experiences of rape and assault is multi layered and its impacts are endless. Her talking about the rapist and presenting this narrative only strengthens the story line, as it shows how all parties involved in this experience must confront what happened and face the aftermath. Li is extremely clever in how she has transformed her own story of trauma and the stories of other women like myself into fiction which is a great educational tool in terms of talking about how these experiences have long lasting effects. 

I would end in saying that I think everyone who loves reading should read this book, as it is more than just a fictional story but is one which has a lot of heart as well as invested personal experiences from the author herself. 

Header image via Wasafiri