Always is the third installment of Nicola Griffith’s mystery series featuring Aud Torvingen, an independently wealthy former police officer based in Atlanta but raised in Norway and England. She was first introduced in The Blue Place in 1998.
Aud is an attractive character, if you go for tall rangy women with killer (literally) martial arts training. But she’s not always fully likable and that of course is a significant part of her appeal. She has sophisticated tastes in art and food and she’s immensely skilled with technology, but she’s a little rough around the edges particularly when it comes to her interactions with other human beings, who for the most part she finds baffling.
In this book, we meet a somewhat kinder, gentler Aud who travels to Seattle to meet her mother and her mother’s new husband. She is also attending to some real estate problems involving a warehouse property that she owns, which may or may not involve corrupt city councilors and highly unscrupulous real estate agents. The warehouse is being used as a film set for a television production which is being sabotaged in a variety of ways in order to bring down the value of the property. Aud becomes directly involved when she falls for Kick, a former stuntwoman who runs the catering company for the film crew; Kick is eventually poisoned along with other crew members by some drug-spiked coffee on the set.
Meanwhile, Aud is also taking a break from her life in Atlanta in order to recover from a dramatic event involving a women’s self-defence course that she taught. Griffith tells the Atlanta story in a series of flashback episodes which alternate with the Seattle segments. There are vivid descriptions of the 16 lessons of the class in which Aud introduces about a dozen Southern women to the art and ultimately the politics of basic self-defence. At first these sections feel like an interruption to the present time story but gradually they accumulate a significant momentum that is equally compelling.
Griffith uses the self-defence sections as both metaphor and as instruction — her descriptions of how to properly throw a punch, break a kneecap or otherwise disable a potential attacker are incredibly detailed and no doubt accurate given that Griffith used to teach women’s self-defence in the early 1990s and gave it up when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Through the character of Aud, Griffith articulates some of the fundamentals of martial arts as well as some old-fashioned feminist politics, reminding her students that more than half of the attacks on women occur in the home and that women are most often assaulted by men they know.
The theme of understanding and using what the body is capable of is central to the novel. In the Seattle strand of the plot, Aud must confront her own demons regarding her physical limits. She is acutely aware of her physical surroundings and of her physical gifts, many of which involve being able to assess the best way to protect herself from a potential attacker. But as she falls for Kick, who during the course of the novel, learns that she has MS, Aud needs to rethink the way she relates to the world.
The novel is a fascinating meditation on the ways humans take up space in their environment. Griffith extends that meditation to include the natural environment as well the more personal emotional environment that is part of intimate relationships. In the self-defence realm, she graphically, and at times shockingly, demonstrates the ways women traditionally misunderstand and undermine their strengths and refuse to acknowledge the ways in which they can manipulate the power that they have.
In the romantic realm, Aud contends with the emotional reality of contemplating a partnership with a woman with a potentially debilitating physical condition. Knowing that Griffith has MS herself adds to the poignancy.
Always is a novel that works on many fronts. There is enough action and suspense to make it satisfying as a mystery and there’s enough of a spark in the relationship department to make it work on that level as well. Let’s face it, watching a self-contained, butch woman with hints of previous relationship tragedy fall hard and fast makes for great summer reading.