Reviewed by Leila Lois
by Paul Dalgarno
September 2, 2020, 352 pages, ISBN 13: 9781920727468
It is relatively rare that a work of fiction provokes one to delve into the world of ethics. Ethics is different from morality because it does not have normative or oppressive intent. Ethics is important to explore and uphold because it works from the basic principle of minimisation of harm and respecting the dignity and rights of all, including those who we love personally and intimately as much as strangers. So much learning can come from books whose narratives explore ethics and I feel Dalgarno’s book has much to offer those who read it, it can perhaps even be a useful mirror.
There are two things I appreciate most about this brave novel by Dalgarno. The first is that it explores so candidly the inner world of the narrator—Chris – who is painted with such pathos, to provoke tenderness and vulnerability in the reader and cast toxic masculinity under scrutiny. Secondly, I appreciate how it aroused in me important conversations on love and ethics, coloured by story.
The premise of Poly is outlined quite explicitly via the blurb: a married couple experiencing a waning of their sex life together decide to explore polyamory. There is a great deal of ambivalence on the part of the narrator, which Dalgarno gracefully uncovers. At first the opening up of the couple’s marriage seems only partly consensual for him, as Sarah, his wife, pursues male partners with tenacity while he is left to ruminate on his feelings, his desires and his sense of self in the relationship. There is honesty and open communication between them but a few disappointments and evidence of questionable priorities along the way, as children are left uncollected with their babysitter and correspondence breaks down when partying hard. These issues are handled with care by Dalgarno and give a gritty realism to the book. I am tired personally of reading didactic pieces about polyamory that imply that we are nothing but desirous automaton who ought to have senseless hook-ups as often as possible with as many people who catch our eye. There are so many nuances to consent and relationships that I feel these kind of ‘How To’ guides miss. Let’s face it, life is not Sex in the City and for many of us that level of intimacy with constant strangers would be frightening or boring. One of the issues I have had with this portrayal of polyamory is the cavalier attitude towards the people one could be intimate with within and outside of primary relationships. Respect is as important within the primary relationship as without it a coequal polyamorous ideal is to be upheld. The negligence of others’ feelings is most certainly a huge reason that this ideal fails and it takes work. It is novel and refreshing to read a fictional work that explores this revitalised paradigm of permissiveness in all its ambiguity, without the ironically sermonic extremities of some recent self-help books of this nature.
As the narrator reflects at a pivotal point in the novel, ‘Things were OK, they were fine. On the macro level, my life was really, really good.’ He then goes on to detail the practicality of his work knapsack. The tacit sentiment is of oceanic feeling, a huge ambivalence to this new ‘lifestyle’ and all of its hacks. A need to be loved and appreciated and heard. As the novel progresses, he and Sarah learn more stably how to navigate the unpredictable terrain of an open relationship and live more peaceably with boundless love and conviction. It’s a beautiful ideal, but I think it is possible. If we look at the work of bell hooks, who says ‘Love is the practice of freedom’, the ultimate freedom is being able to express our admiration, desire and love for others without fear and that those who truly love us will be happy for us, and maybe even love us for that happiness, vicariously. Of course it is often cited that monogamy and the ‘nuclear family’ is a product of post-war contemporary society and consumerism, it is explored in Alain de Botton’s work, in ‘On Love’ (de Botton, 1993). We have pauperised love by narrowing its remit to the heterosexual nuclear family. Love is expansive. Botton explores the ancient understanding of teaching through love, that is to say that romantic relationships should always be formed around the premise that we individually have self-work to do and that we can encourage, support and teach those that we are romantically (or intimately) involved with through positive communication and encouragement of exploration outside the confines of the relationship. For example, we can engender a more positive attitude when confronted with the fact that our jealousy will always exist. If we love this open way, we can learn how to handle our jealousies and teach one another personal boundaries. Society needs to open up to the fact that that love should not necessarily be backed into an exclusive space. Through accepting alternative (yet ancient) forms of romantic love, like polyamory, we are working towards a world where love is boundless, more love exists.
Recently, bell hooks wrote an essay on ‘Love as a practice of freedom’, in the context of decolonisation, hooks posits that we need to revolutionise our understanding of love and its remit, to work against ingested domination such as self-hatred, hopelessness and despair, shifting towards a love ethic that celebrates non-white, non-heterosexual bodies. Dalgarno provokes, in a way, us to interrogate our understanding of male, white, and heterosexual (so far as the book explores) as a ‘type’. Truly none of us are types and the performative elements of romantic relationships are restricted by perceived maxims of exclusivity.
Another theme the book prompted me to reconsider was honesty. With a Kantian lens, ‘ethical non-monogamy’ where all involved are free and informed IS ethical because it involves maximum honesty and trust. Kant upheld that honesty was by far the best policy in life and more important than any other ‘virtue’. This because complete honesty respects the sovereignty of all and allows for consent and informed decision making. ‘Poly’ relates a few hiccups in the truth-telling of its major protagonists and shows how not only the truth will always out but that expressing one’s needs and desires openly is the only way to live with respect for others. On the final page, the couple exchange ‘I love yous’ and we truly believe it, the individual and shared reckonings they have been through are testimony to this.
As a queer woman of colour and an intersectional feminist, I appreciate especially the opportunity to see diverse sexualities as narratives, storied with real people, their vulnerabilities and passions. I feel the palpable need for less division and more equitable relationships, for breaking away from oppressive structures while leaning into self-compassion. The raw, unfiltered being of the characters in the book promotes this in a way that a self-help book could never. To quote bell hooks, this book highlights the significance of: ‘moving from silence into speech’ in a power nexus that predicates the suppression of other than heterosexual, monogamous, white-bodied ways of being. It is a ‘gesture of defiance that heals that makes new life and new growth possible. It is that act of speech, of ‘talking back,’ that is no mere gesture of empty words, that is the expression of our movement from object to subject—the liberated voice’. Silence was never good for us. This book calls to the hills both with urgency and fascination to be heard and to encourage us to embrace our voices and our truths, whatever they may be, through love.
Alain de Botton, 1993. Essays in Love, Picador: London.
Hooks, Bell. “Talking Back.” Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. Boston: South End, 1989. 5–9.
About the reviewer: Leila Lois is a dancer and writer of Kurdish and Celtic heritage who has lived most of her life in Aotearoa. In her poems, Leila explores a personal sense of origin that, like the ocean, binds several landscapes and times, coming back to the idea that a timeless, boundless love pervades. Her publishing history includes Southerly Journal, Djed Press, NoD Literary Journal, Honey Lit Journal, Mayhem Journal, Lite Lit One, Bent Street Journal and Delving into Dance. Find out more at: www.leilaloisdances.com/writing or at Twitter: leilaboos