Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review of Through The Peacock Gate - Lauren Crabbe

Review by photojournalist Lauren Crabbe

Deliberating an opening for my review of Sandy McCutcheon’s Through the Peacock Gate, I opened the book at random and re-read whatever passage first caught my eye. It tied in quite nicely with a theory I’ve been developing about Fez, where the book is set: that its real truth lies in what defies superficial explanation; in negative space; in dichotomies. The passage, beginning modestly with, “Let me describe the indescribable”, unravels a series of concepts that not only challenge one another, but nearly cancel each other out. Incomprehensible magic that can’t be substantiated through folklore; thoughts constructing a realm where thought is unknown; a character completely devoured by space that transcends measurement, and yet becomes one with it. The kind of inversions that crack fragile Western minds with their immunity to paradox, that only someone who’s spent extended time in spiritual regions of the world can navigate.

McCutcheon has penned a literary equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat, and done so with alternating wry efficiency and achingly beautiful prose that’s engaging to read as it is mind-bending to comprehend. As I’m lucky enough to be in Fez at the time of reading, it was all I could do not to take off down the Medina in the middle of the night in search of the supernatural – threat of possession by djinns be damned.

The onset of mystery is slow, veiled by a deceptively simple premise: the main character, Richard (an alias), returns to Fez to find his house (or dar) robbed and gutted. After a brief detour into the vaults of his former life, he tentatively enlists the help of a local writer, Yazami, to find the men to repair it. From there, corners of a grander plot are meticulously doled out like sips of nus-nus left to cool down. Sometimes, they take the ghostly form of A’isha, a djinniya with a curious grudge who haunts Richard’s dar. Others appear as innocently as butterflies flapping their wings (Richard is a lepidopterist) before sudden twists blow through and flatten your sense of shrewdness. All orchestrate his gradual descent into madness – an intimidating portrayal, masterfully executed.

Embroidered through the suspense are tactful, sincere cultural observations that could only be garnered by someone who’s spent a decade weaving through Morocco’s ornate cultural fabric, as McCutcheon has. He opens a window into the local mindset that dispels any illusion we hold that we might know a thing or two they don’t. Spice shop owners quoting James Joyce and Yazami’s metaphysical mic-drops are contrasted with religious rubbernecking and vapid squabbles of expats and tourists; a prudent reminder we can strive to understand these foreign realms but never presume to know. Nothing is as it seems – a notion that will shock, delight, and humble you throughout the book as tools from McCutcheon’s thriller kit come into play.

Through Richard’s attempts to bridge his own shortcomings, we circle back again and again to this prominent theme of dichotomy. “My endeavours to cross this divide proved futile – each fragment of understanding opening up even bigger differences in our perception”. Yet this is what McCutcheon attempts, and succeeds, to do. Through the Peacock Gate deftly illustrates the process of the ordinary becoming extraordinary, and vice versa. Gently appreciating the subtle magic of the unknown, while revering the masochistic divine. It feeds you intimacy from a distance, and will leave you hungry like a djinniya for blood.

Lauren Crabbe:


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