-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson-
In the absence of words and common language, much of human communication happens through non-verbal means: body language, gestures and looks, for example. So it seems right that Sally Ashton’s debut novella, Controller, which follows its protagonist into an alien and foreign city whose language she learns as she goes along, should feature so much looking and touching and sense of watching oneself. The words just fall away.
Laura has arrived in Spain, apparently on a whim, understanding very little Spanish, and her first encounter (in the novella, at least) has the same alienating effect on the non-Spanish-speaking reader as it must do on her. Sure, you can go to Google Translate and find out what the little old lady in the cafe is saying, or you can throw yourself into Ashton’s world and accept that Laura doesn’t entirely understand, and neither should you. You can join her in trying to navigate through a series of polite smiles, guesses, physical gestures and half-meanings: the non-verbal language of those who can’t speak to each other.
She’s not the only one to struggle. Ashton also introduces Bea, the Argentine immigrant whose venereal infection and sexual history have left her almost mute with strangers. She, however, has an eloquent non-verbal vocabulary, and – despite her other difficulties – communicates with Laura, through touch and smell, a message of human togetherness in the midst of a culture and a place neither of them can connect with.
Also on the list of isolated people failing to connect with the world is Eric, the Dutch painter whose chest is a network of scar tissue and whose disability leaves his left arm floating about according to its own will, almost at random. This is a man whose life has been spent in visually recording the world and its suffering, and it is in him that we have the greatest hint as to the controller of the novella’s title. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a fellow foreigner, he speaks English to Laura, but English in an abrupt, infinitive-heavy style. Even with her blindfold on, Laura’s internal gaze reflects Eric’s external gaze, which explores and intrudes upon every part of her exposed body. Just how far can an artist go with his model before he crosses the line into abuse and exploitation of her submissiveness?
Laura’s money comes from being a still life model, and this is the second reason – along with her unavoidably foreign appearance – that makes her often the object of staring, of gazing and of probing eyes. Eric’s eyes explore every curve of her frequently naked body, and she herself is forever imagining what she looks like from outside, picturing her legs touching each other under her dress or the painful angles her back has been bent into. It all gives Controller a visceral quality; this is a novella very much concerned with its protagonist’s body and her relationship with it, as well as her physical relation with the outside world and how she communicates with both.
Beyond Laura’s internal gaze, the novella’s prose is brief and almost bleak. There’s a sense of being in a Spanish coastal town that isn’t a major tourist destination – the sea, the landscape and the language stretch out into the distance with no peaks or splashes of colour, simmering quietly in siesta sunshine. Sentences are often brief, disconnected from surrounding context and wandering through an alien landscape just as Laura wanders the foreign city. This style lends the novella a heavy emphasis on its protagonist and her perspective, rather than any specific location or experience of the world.
Not one for the squeamish, Controller revels in almost literally anatomising the relationship between an artist’s model and her body, and also between the model and the artist, at the deliberate expense of their relationship with the outside world.