Narrative structure impacts when we take in information, and how we read a story. Doubtful Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go would have the same impact if we knew from page one what was happening, and surely Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony wouldn’t be as masterful if narrated linearly. In the same way, Michelle Hart’s structural decisions in her debut novel, We Do What We Do In The Dark, influence how we understand the protagonist, Mallory. We meet her during her first year in college as she begins an affair with a woman twice her age, so we see her in a very adult situation prior to learning about her mother’s death—an event that forced Mallory to grow up quickly, yet at the same time has made her slightly juvenile.
The novel is divided into four sections: the first two moving chronologically from the origin’s affair, the third revisiting Mallory’s childhood, and the fourth post-college. The novel opens when Mallory is a college freshman and is dealing with her mother’s death. She meets an older, married woman—a professor, but not her professor. “The woman,” as she is called throughout the novel, is a successful children’s book author and illustrator, and she and Mallory fall into an intense affair. The secret nature of their relationship is both intoxicating and weighty:
“Sometimes, as she ran, Mallory fantasized about what it would be like to confront the woman in the crowded gym and expose their affair. She had an improbable advantage over the woman, who had so much to lose—her marriage, her job at the college, her publishing career—while Mallory had nothing. The best part of having nothing, Mallory thought, was that it couldn’t be lost.”
The affair ends, yet spills into the second section, “Bad People,” which takes place the following semester after the woman’s husband has returned, and Mallory’s relationship with an attractive boy her age seems to make the woman jealous. But in the following section, “I Love That I Can Tell You Things,” the chronological narrative structure shifts. We leave the story of Mallory’s college years and visit her childhood. She’s ten when her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer and when Hannah, a girl a year older than Mallory, moves in next door.
The two girls’ friendship is arguably this section’s fulcrum—and that includes the absence of this relationship when Hannah goes off to college during Mallory’s senior year. This relationship nicely contrasts Mallory’s relationship with the woman in the previous sections. Despite Hannah being older, it often seems Mallory is the more mature one. Herein lies the underlying thread of the novel: Mallory’s mother’s illness and subsequent death have made Mallory seem both older and younger. Her mother’s death has forced her to grow up, yet has stained her adolescence in such a way that’s given Mallory a slight lingering childlike nature. At times in this third section, Mallory seems older than she does in the opening section, and it’s in this third section we begin to better understand the Mallory we first met. While this paradox of Mallory seeming, and feeling, both older and younger than her peers is a tension that runs throughout the novel, it isn’t made entirely clear until this section.
The backdrop of this section is a feeling of helplessness and resignation, one anyone who has watched a loved one go through terminal illness will recognize. Mallory’s mother, who was seen as “the pretty one” (compared to Mallory’s aunt as “the funny one”), fights for her life in the hospital, but “What did it matter, Mallory wondered now, whether a woman was pretty or funny? She was fucked either way.”
The final section, “Storytime,” picks up after Mallory has graduated from college. Hart’s decision to structure the novel as she did means Mallory’s childhood and adolescence is literally straddled between her young adulthood—it’s the center of the novel, central to Mallory’s life. And yet, We Do What We Do In The Dark is about so much more than just grief and how it can shape us, leaving us feeling directionless and searching for something to fill the void. The novel also deals with queer conception, sexual awakening, and coming out—but does the latter with a refreshing simplicity and lack of traumatic fanfare. But mostly, this novel is about the way a significant relationship can change us, reverberating for years to come.
While Mallory’s affair with the woman is consensual, it raises interesting questions about power and vulnerability. The woman is undoubtedly influential, and gives Mallory cash after sex to get back to the dorm, “and typically… more than the fare.” There’s a slight transactional nature to the relationship, one seen in the final section: after college, the woman helps Mallory get a job. By the end of the novel, Mallory’s perception of the relationship shifts, and it’s here—landing on her assessment of the affair—that questions are raised of whether there is total autonomy in a relationship between two people of such different ages and stations, nuanced questions to engage in cultural conversations about consent.
In short, We Do What We Do In The Dark is an electrifying debut. Hart’s prose is concise and lyrical. Her ability to capture loneliness and the contradictions found in youth and grief is notable. Even if we ourselves haven’t experienced parental loss at a young age, we recognize the driftlessness and yearning of young adulthood. But it’s not merely its relatability and poetic nature that makes We Do What We Do In The Dark so notable—its artful narrative structure creates a profound reading experience.
We Do What We Do In The Dark
by Michelle Hart
Published May 3rd, 2022
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine, The Millions, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.