Adele Dumont reviews Yellow City by Ellena Savage
by Ellena Savage
The Atlas Review
Reviewed by ADELE DUMONT
Yellow City charts Ellena Savage’s travels in Lisbon, a city she returned to having experienced an assault there eleven years prior. Framed as a set of journal entries spanning three weeks in 2017, the chapbook records the author’s attempts to locate the archived court files pertaining to this crime. Savage is a kind of detective in her own case: accompanied by Dom, her lover-slash-sidekick, she navigates the cobbled footpaths and the local bureaucracy.
Savage’s younger, gap-year self-will be recognisable to many readers: her sense of ease in feeling she ‘could talk to any person in the world’; her characteristically Australian perspective of Europe as a collection of cities to be ’stepped through’; a sense that the future (or even a single night out) is ripe with serendipitous possibility.
‘I had fast learned how to sleep in any number of positions: between the farts and fucks and snores of adolescent adults in hostels; on a row of couch cushions laid out by earnest Belgian students on their Erasmus year, or with my head resting on the shoulder of a fleshy Brazilian on an overnight bus.’ (p.5)
And Savage’s coming-of-age will be deeply familiar to many female readers, where growing up is understood to involve a contraction of the self; a process of learning not to trust: ‘…the fantasy that things are somehow safe, which you need to have if you are to do anything at all, had been pulled right out from under me.’ (p.22)
The journal format, with its exact dates punctuating the text, suggests that this is an unmediated, authoritative account of the writer’s firsthand experience as it unfolds from one day to the next. And yet, very early on, Savage disrupts her own journal-entry voice:
I was a general, all-purpose, adaptable person. All my unrealised potential suggested that I might become exactly like any one of the people I encountered.
– In becoming specific, narrower, more difficult, you, you don’t have much left to give.
-But it’s true. We dress the same, she and I. And we didn’t get any better. (pp.5-6)
Such interjections persist throughout Yellow City. Reminiscent of a Greek chorus commentary, they seem to represent facets of Savage’s own mind; self doubting and self-excoriating. The way they jut into the story is unsteadying. You and I and she and we here all seem to refer back to the one person. Can I only ever denote someone in their present form, and if so, how many third person past selves do we each possess? What can the reader hold onto here, if even subject pronouns are this slippery? In prompting the reader to ask these sorts of questions, from the outset Savage undoes any illusion that her ‘I’ is delivering a cohesive, chronological narrative.
Throughout Yellow City, Savage alerts us not only to language’s slipperiness, but also its power to mask the truth. Words here cannot be trusted, and especially not the official kind. While ostensibly in search of documentation, she knows that ultimately her efforts are futile since the files have ‘absolutely no meaning’. She puts off calling the police, wanting to ‘preserve the self’ she is used to living with and not wanting to know the ‘words she gave’ them. Tellingly, even her own name has been mis-spelled in the official records. She provides us, verbatim, an email home in which she assures her brother that ‘it’s all over’ and that ‘apart from all that, I’m fine’. But of course it turns out that not even these words (her own, and fresh from the time in question) contain much truth.
Along with language, memory, too, is depicted as fallible and unstable. At the police line-up she describes her own memory as ‘altered… amorphous…composite’. The particulars of the crime; what she drank on the night in question; the location of the apartment where she was attacked; the appearance of her assailants, are hazy. One detail she does recall is the ‘skin-tight’ jeans she was wearing. Though Savage never spells it out, we can imagine that it is these kinds of details (or lack of) which a court would fixate on, and which are routinely used to undermine a victim’s credibility. Lucia Osborne-Crowley, reflecting on her attempts to write about her own abuse, talks about her discomfort with the gaps and inconsistencies in her memories since these ‘could look to readers a lot like lies’. But Osborne-Crowley and Savage each succeed in resisting any urge to inject consistency or clarity where there is none. Osborne-Crowley writes:
After months of gruelling work, I had some details. I had pieced some parts of this memory back together. It was terrifying. It was exhausting. It was necessary. I finally have the contours of my story, and I have written it down. I have tamed it as best I could. What I now know about this memory is enough. It is horrifying enough. It is detailed enough. It is enough.
Reading Yellow City and hence newly attuned to the workings of my own memory, I am dismayed to see just how unreliable it is. I believe I am reading Savage’s words attentively, and yet when it comes to piecing together this review, I need to keep checking that I’m not mixing up fragments of Ellena’s narrative with that of Coetzee’s Disgrace, which I am reading simultaneously, and which also contains sexual violence. Even with their starkly different contexts I find bits of the two stories becoming tangled together. I am reminded too, of an interview I saw Emily Maguire give about her novel, An Isolated Incident. In writing the rape and murder of a young woman, Maguire very consciously omits any gratuitous detail whatsoever. And yet, readers when discussing the story with her are often convinced of one or another detail, which Maguire knows for a fact does not appear anywhere in her book. I can’t recall exactly how Maguire explained this phenomenon – my memory fails me – but it was something to do with us humans being uncomfortable with unknowns; our minds leaping to fill in any gaps.
If language and memory are unstable, Yellow City seems to suggest that the body holds some deeper truth. For all her probing intellect, Savage’s own physicality is hyper present: her itchy legs; the hot slipperiness of her period; the acid in her belly. We can in fact map how profoundly the attack has impacted her through the details she reveals to us of her body. Her younger self has an ease in her own skin; we are told she falls asleep on stranger’s shoulders. In contrast, her present self carries the marks of trauma: there is tension in her gut; tears threatening to burst forth; urges to run. So even though intellectually Savage believed she had ‘recovered’, her body tells us (and her) a different story. It possesses what she calls ‘flesh knowledge’; memory is ‘held’ in her skin. The body is keeping score.
What struck me, too, in Savage’s writing is the absence of a certain kind of lexicon, of the sort that proliferates in media testimonies relating to sexual assault. Not once, for instance, does Savage use the terms ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ or ‘perpetrator’. She describes scenes which a modern reader might quickly label a kind of ‘triggering’ or a ‘panic attack’ or a ‘post-traumatic response’ and yet that language would feel oddly out-of-place here. When she does at one point refer to her ‘trauma’ it is only to point out that she’d never before conceived of her experience in this way.
At the heart of Yellow City is Savage’s struggle to find her own words for this thing that has befallen her, this thing that reverberates through her life. She grapples with what to call the attack itself, introducing it first simply as ‘it’ and then turning over multiple possibilities: an ‘almost-rape’; an ‘attempt’, a ‘scare’. Rita Bullwinkel says Savage ‘translates the memory of violence’ into language.’ The choice of verb ’translates’ is apt here, implying as it does that memory (however imperfect) is the original source, of which language is only an approximation at best. When Savage does try to put the thing into her own terms – ‘an encounter during which my flesh remembered the possibility of a violent death’… [which] threw a girl’s sense of being into chaos’ – it feels to me a kind of reclaiming. Even if she cannot hope to find answers in the court documents, it feels to me that she is finding it in language. Her grappling never feels futile.
What keeps me returning to Savage’s writing again and again is above all her voice: intimate, embodied, sparklingly-smart, and at moments flat-out hilarious. The experience of reading Yellow City is not to feel defeated by language’s fallibility or its imprecision, but to be newly excited about its possibilities, for in Savage’s hands language is alive and ablaze.
Savage E, 2019, Yellow City, TAR Chapbook Series.
Osborne-Crowley L, 2019, ‘Write what you want to forget’, Bookanista.
Maguire E, 2016, Interview at St Albans Writers’ Festival.
Bullwinkel R, 2019, https://www.theatlasreview.com/store/yellow-city-by-ellena-savage