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Stepping out of his Amsterdam studio one April afternoon to buy cigarettes for his girlfriend, a dashing 29-year old Englishman reflects on their wonderful seven-year relationship, and his stellar career as an internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer. But ...
Stepping out of his Amsterdam studio one April afternoon to buy cigarettes for his girlfriend, a dashing 29-year old Englishman reflects on their wonderful seven-year relationship, and his stellar career as an internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer. But the nameless protagonist's destiny takes an unthinkably horrifying turn when a trio of mysterious cloaked and hooded women kidnap him, chain him to the floor of a stark white room to keep as their sexual prisoner, and subjected him to eighteen days of humiliation, mutilation, and rape. Then, after a bizarrely public performance, he is released, only to be held captive in the purgatory of his own guilt and torment: The realization that no one will believe his strange story. Coolly revelatory, meticulously crafted, The Book of Revelation is Rupert Thomson at his imaginative best.
I can see it all so clearly, even now. The studio canteen was empty, and I was sitting in the corner, by the window. Sunlight angled across the table, dividing the smooth, blond wood into two equal halves, one bright, one dark; I remember thinking that it looked heraldic, like a shield. An ashtray stood in front of me, the sun's rays shattering against its chunky glass. Beside it, someone's coffee cup, still half full but long since cold. It was an ordinary moment in an ordinary day -- a break between rehearsals. . . .
I had just opened my notebook and was about to put pen to paper when I heard footsteps to my right, a dancer's footsteps, light but purposeful. I looked up to see Brigitte, my girlfriend, walking towards me in her dark-green leotard and her laddered tights, her hair tied back with a piece of mauve velvet. She was frowning. She had run out of cigarettes, she told me, and there were none in the machine. Would I go out and buy her some more?
I stared at her. "I thought I bought you a packet yesterday."
"I finished them," she said.
"You've smoked twenty cigarettes since yesterday?"
Brigitte just looked at me.
"You'll get cancer," I told her.
"I don't care," she said.
This was an argument we had had before, of course, and I soon relented. In the end, I was pleased to be doing something for her. It's a quality I often see in myself when I look back, that eagerness to please. I had wanted to make her happy from the first moment I saw her. I would always remember the morning when she walked into the studio, fresh from the Jeune Ballet de France, and how she stood by the piano, pinning up her crunchy, chestnut-coloured hair, and I would always remember making love to her a few days later, and the expression on her face as she knelt above me, a curious mixture of arrogance and ecstasy, her eyes so dark that I could not tell the difference between the pupils and the irises. . . .
Brigitte had moved to the window. She stood there, staring out, one hand propped on her hip. Smiling, I reached for my sweater and pulled it over the old torn shirt I always wore for dance class.
"I won't be long," I said.
Outside, the weather was beautiful. Though May was still two weeks away, the sun felt warm against my back as I walked off down the street. I saw a man cycle over a bridge, singing loudly to himself, as people often do in Amsterdam, the tails of his pale linen jacket flapping. There was a look of anticipation on his face -- anticipation of summer, and the heat that was to come. . . .
I had been living with Brigitte for seven years. We rented the top two floors of a house on Egelantiersgracht, one of the prettier, less well-known canals. We had skylights, exotic plants, a tank of fish; we had a south-facing terrace where we would eat breakfast in the summer. Since we were both members of the same company, we saw each other twenty-four hours a day; in fact, in all the time that we had lived together, I don't suppose we had spent more than three or four nights apart. As dancers, we had had a good deal of success. We had performed all over the world -- in Osaka, in São Paulo, in Tel Aviv. The public loved us. So did the critics. I was also beginning to be acclaimed for my choreography (I had created three short ballets for the company, the most recent of which had won an international prize). At the age of twenty-nine, I had every reason to feel blessed. There was nothing about my life I would have changed, not if you had offered me riches beyond my wildest imaginings -- though, as I walked to the shop that afternoon, I do remember wishing that Brigitte would give up smoking. . . .
I followed my usual route. After crossing the bridge, I turned left along the street that bordered the canal. I walked a short distance, then I took a right turn, into the shadows of a narrow alley. The air down there smelled of damp plaster, stagnant water, and the brick walls of the houses were grouted with an ancient, lime-green moss. I passed the watchmaker's where a cat lay sleeping in the window, its front paws flexing luxuriously, its fur as grey as smoke or lead. I passed a shop that sold oriental vases and lamps with shades of coloured glass and bronze statues of half-naked girls. Like the man on the bicycle, I had music in my head: it was a composition by Juan Martin, which I was hoping to use in my next ballet. . . .
Halfway down the alley, at the point where it curved slightly to the left, I stopped and looked up. Just there, the buildings were five storeys high, and seemed to lean towards each other, all but shutting out the light.
The sky had shrunk to a thin ribbon of blue.
As I brought my eyes back down, I saw them, three figures dressed in hoods and cloaks, like part of a dream that had become detached, somehow, and floated free, into the day. The sight did not surprise me. In fact, I might even have laughed. I suppose I thought they were on their way to a fancy-dress party -- or else they were street-theatre people, perhaps. . . .
Whatever the truth was, they didn't seem particularly out of place in the alley. No, what surprised me, if anything, was the fact that they recognised me. They knew my name. They told me they had seen me dance. Yes, many times. I was wonderful, they said. One of the women clapped her hands together in delight at the coincidence. Another took me by the arm, the better to convey her enthusiasm.
While they were clustered round me, asking questions, I felt a sharp pain in the back of my right hand. Looking down, I caught a glimpse of a needle leaving one of my veins, a needle against the darkness of a cloak. I heard myself ask the women what they were doing -- What are you doing? -- only to drift away, fall backwards, while the black steeples of their hoods remained above me, and my words too, written on the sky, that narrow strip of blue, like a message trailed behind a plane. . . .
It is only five minutes' walk from the studio to the shop that sells newspapers and cigarettes. I ought to have been there and back in a quarter of an hour. But half an hour passed, then forty-five minutes, and still there was no sign of me.
I had last seen Brigitte standing at the canteen window, one hand propped on her hip. How long, I wonder, did she stay like that? And what went through her mind as she stood there, staring down into the street? Did she think our little argument had upset me? Did she think I was punishing her?
I imagine she must have turned away eventually, reaching up with both hands to re-tie the scrap of velvet that held her hair back from her face. Probably she would have muttered something to herself in French. Faít chier. Merde. She would still have been longing for that cigarette, of course. All her nerve-ends jangling.
Maybe, in the end, she asked Fernanda for a Marlboro Light and smoked it by the pay-phone in the corridor outside the studio.
I doubt she danced too well that afternoon.
That night, when I did not come home, Brigitte rang several of my friends. She rang my parents too, in England. No one knew anything. No one could help. Two days later, a leading Dutch newspaper published an article containing a brief history of my career and a small portrait photograph. It wasn't front-page news. After all, there was no real story as yet. I was a dancer and a choreographer, and I had gone missing. That was it. Various people at the company came up with various different theories -- a nervous breakdown of some kind, personal problems -- but none of them involved foul play. My parents offered a reward for any information that might throw light on my whereabouts. Nobody came forward.
All this I found out later.
There was a point at which Brigitte began to resent me for putting her in such a difficult position. She found it humiliating, not knowing where I was; I was making her look ridiculous. It must have been then that it occurred to her that I might have left her -- for another woman, presumably. How cowardly of me to say nothing. How cowardly, to just go. Brigitte was half French, half Portuguese, and her pride had always resembled a kind of anger. There was nothing constant or steady about it. No, it flared like a struck match. When she was interviewed by the police she told them that I had abandoned her, betrayed her. She couldn't produce any evidence to support her theory, nor could she point to any precedent (in our many years together I had never once been unfaithful to her), yet the police took her seriously. A woman's intuition, after all. What's more, she lived with me. She was supposed to know me best. So if that was what she thought. . . . The police did not send out any search parties for me. They did not scour the countryside with tracker dogs or drag the city's waterways. They did not even put up Missing Person posters. Why would they? I was just a man having an affair.
This, too, I found out later.
One other thing. The last person to see me before I disappeared was not Brigitte, but Stefan Elmers. Stefan was a freelance stills photographer who worked for the company. He took pictures of us dancing, black-and-white pictures that were used in programmes and publicity. Both Brigitte and I counted Stefan as a friend.
As I was walking along the canal that afternoon -- and this could only have been moments before I turned into the alley -- Stefan happened to drive past me in his car. Usually he would have stopped and talked to me, or else he would have shouted out of the window, something cheeky, knowing Stefan, but there was another car behind him, right behind him, so he just kept going.
Apparently, I looked happy.
For the next eighteen days no one had the slightest idea where I was.
1. The novel begins and ends with first person narration. Why do you think Thomson chooses to tell the story of the protagonist's imprisonment and sexual abuse in the third person? Did you find this narrative shift disorienting? How does this shift affect the emotional texture of the events that take place in the white room? How would these scenes be different if told from a first person, "I" perspective?
2. Thomson's story hinges on a startling reversal of roles, with women assuming the positions of power and reducing the male to an object for their sadistic pleasure. How did you react to this reversal? Did you find it believable? Disturbing? Why do you think Thomson cast his novel in this way?
3. The plot of The Book of Revelation takes off from an old joke: "He went out to get a pack of cigarettes and. . . ." When the narrator does not return, his girlfriend simply assumes that he's left her for another woman, even though he'd always been faithful. What might Thomson be saying about the real stories that lie beneath the conventional ones with which we try to explain the unexplainable?
4. When the narrator asks his captors why they have kidnapped him, one of them responds, "Because you're beautiful. . . . Because we love you" [p. 35]. Is this a serious or mocking response? What do you think their real motives are? Do you think the narrator is right in suggesting that they are acting out their own sexual abuse and taking revenge for the damage that had once been done to them? What can be inferred about the nature of that damage from their behavior towards the narrator? Why does Thomson keep their motivations concealed?
5. Towards the end of his captivity, the narrator reaches a point at which he feels "his fate was no more or less than he deserved. There was nothing random or accidental about what had happened to him. There was nothing unlucky about it" [pp. 90-91]. Why does the narrator see his situation in this way at this point in his captivity? Does this interpretation reveal anything about his character?
6. At one point, the narrator realizes the white room he's held captive in is a "kind of stage" and that he was being "asked to sustain a performance with no knowledge of how long it was supposed to last" [p. 47]. In what ways are the torments he suffers tailored specifically to the fact that he is a dancer? What kinds of performances is he forced to give? How does he try to gain some power over his captors?
7. Once he's free, why doesn't the narrator report his abduction to the police or try harder to convince Brigitte that his story is true? Why doesn't he tell anyone else what happened to him? Does his passivity seem psychologically accurate?
8. After he is released, the narrator's mind fills with "images from the room—the black steeples of the women's hoods, their cloaks swirling around me like unconsciousness itself. . . ." [p. 115]. Earlier, we're told that "when they moved toward him, passing through the sunlight, it was an eerie moment, almost supernatural, like watching ghosts walk through a wall. He felt as though the fabric of the world had been tampered with, which only added to his suspicion that the women were beyond all natural law" [p. 72]. What symbolic value do the women have? To what extent do you think they are projections of the narrator's subconscious? Does this indicate that Thomson wants readers to question whether the women—and therefore the narrator's experiences with them—are real?
9. In trying to find his abductors, the narrator has sex with 162 women in fourteen months. In what ways does he perpetuate the cycle of abuse, even while he is trying to free himself from it? How has he become like the women he is searching for? Is he right when he thinks, "Like vampires, they had turned me into another version of themselves" [p. 199]?
10. One of the women the narrator sleeps with tells him that she was abused by her father but that no one had ever believed her. It suddenly occurs to him that "there were others like me, people who were operating in a fourth dimension, a world that was parallel to this one, a kind of purgatory" [p. 186]. Why does he say that people who've been abused inhabit a "fourth dimension"? Why is it a kind of purgatory? In what ways does the narrator operate in a world that is parallel to but severed from the "real" world?
11. After he is released, the narrator spends three years traveling. What is he trying to achieve by staying in constant motion?
12. Why is the narrator attracted to the story Isabel tells him of Norwegian explorer William Barentz who was stranded on the polar island of Nora Zemba? What does the narrator's intention to create a dance about that story reveal about how art is made? About the way artists use existing stories to tell their own? About the relationship between a historical incident and personal history in a work of art?
13. When the narrator first sleeps with Juliette, he thinks, "In the darkness, naked, she looked so black. Like something I could disappear into" [p. 222]. Where else in the novel does he express this wish to disappear, hide, or dissolve? Why is this such a powerful feeling for him? Why is he so drawn to Juliette? Why does he trust and feel safe with her?
14. The Book of Revelation ends just as the narrator is about to tell his story--the story we have just finished reading—to detective Olsen, who asks him to "go back to the beginning" [p. 260]. Why do you think Thomson has given his narrative this circular form? What is the importance of the narrator finally being able to tell his story? What do think Olsen's response will be? What do you imagine will happen to the narrator from this point on?
15. The novel is preceded by an epigraph from Stefan Hertman: "Will there ever be anything other than the exterior and speculation in store for us? The skin, the surface—it is man's deepest secret." How would you relate this idea to the title of the novel, The Book of Revelation? What connections do you find between the novel and the biblical book of Revelation? How does the novel dramatize the problems of revealing and concealing? How is the narrator's life affected by these opposites? What is concealed from him? What does he conceal and reveal? What does the novel seem to imply about the limits of knowing?
Posted April 11, 2001
The beginning was captivating, but the book becomes increasingly irritating. The main character makes no real attempts to recover from his kidnapping and, subsequently, the book just continues to frustrate the reader. I kept reading for the hope that something - anything - would happen, but it didn't, which may be what the author wanted. In any case, the book was mediocre and the ending was worthless.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.