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Reviewed by:
  • Trauma Fiction
  • Laura Beadling
Anne Whitehead. Trauma Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004. vii + 184 pp.

Anne Whitehead's Trauma Fiction delineates what she identifies as the emerging genre of trauma fiction and traces how trauma and fiction are implicated in each other. The book is in two parts, "Theme" and "Style," with three chapters to each part. The first section argues that trauma fiction is not only influenced but informed by recent developments in trauma theory concerning "the nature of traumatic experience itself, the role and function of testimony, and the relation of trauma and place" (161). It is these three theoretical developments that the first three chapters deal with respectively. Although trauma theory includes different methodologies, approaches, and disciplines, Whitehead's focus is primarily literary, and each of the first three chapters, though they begin by engaging with major questions and theorists, is concerned with offering close readings of works of contemporary literature.

The first chapter calls on Cathy Caruth's notion of trauma as a crisis of experience and temporality in order to examine Pat Barker's novel Another World, an exploration of the trauma of World War I, as a site of cultural and historical haunting. Whitehead astutely tempers Caruth with historian Dominick LaCapra's work on the dynamics of trauma and history in order to caution against overidentifying in an uncritical way with victims and thus erasing historical context and specificity. Whitehead rightfully notes that Barker, although she deals with three generations of characters who committed fratricide, skips the generation that actually experienced World War II and the Holocaust and thus claims that the novel risks generalization and "subsumes other, later conflicts" in a generalized haunting (16). As Whitehead [End Page 710] says, "it becomes difficult to determine exactly what the trauma is in the novel or where it resides" (27).

At least one important strand of trauma theory began with the large body of testimony produced by survivors of the Holocaust. In the second chapter, Whitehead points out that in the mid 1990s a genre of testimony emerged, thanks in large part to the work of influential theorists like Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman. Binjamin Wilkomirski's false memoir, Fragments: Memories of a Childhood, 1939-1948, fits the conventions of this genre despite the eventual discovery that it was not in fact an autobiographical document testifying to a truthful account of a young refugee, but something else altogether (critics have debated what its status is or should be). Testimony, as many theorists note, draws the reader into an ethical relationship with the survivor that Wilkomirski's text betrays. Whitehead, however, reactivates this text, not as a simply true or false testimonial, but as a pointed critique of a Swiss collective memory that, imbricated in political structures and national myths, itself falsely denied any complicity with the Nazi regime.

Finally, the third chapter interrogates the relationship between trauma and landscape, reminding us that landscape always highlights matters of not only how we see but also from what vantage point we see. This questioning of positionality is crucial in terms of trauma narratives, which both examine the difficulties of finding one's bearings in the aftermath of trauma as well as radically disrupts notions of time, history, and experience. In order to illustrate the importance of landscape to trauma, Whitehead looks to Anne Michael's Fugitive Pieces, where nature becomes the surface on which trauma has been imprinted and in which the evidence of the past has been concealed, including graves, crawl spaces, ovens, chests, etc. Instead of escaping these negative spaces when they leave Europe, the characters find that the Holocaust has also made itself felt in the new world and on the next generation.

The introduction to the second half of the book makes some valuable and original connections between trauma theory and both postcolonial theory and postmodernist theory, although these connections could be more fully developed in the chapters that follow. Although postmodernism has been accused of being ahistorical, Whitehead rightly points out that postmodern fiction, like trauma fiction, is largely concerned with the politics of memory and forgetting. Furthermore, she notes that trauma fiction shares with postmodern fiction a "tendency to...


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pp. 710-713
Launched on MUSE
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