Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Hardcover: 298 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books (August 26, 2008)
Price: $23.95
ISBN-10: 1565124723
ISBN-13: 978-1565124721

“I’m the girl they found standing on the table. The girl who traced the cracks in the wall with her mother’s blood.”

How we hope little Ellie will come through the dark places of her 11 years of life whole again, as whole as one might expect from the insanity she has survived. We want to believe. Throughout the entire novel, Tomato Girl, author Jayne Pupek’s first, we have been holding our breath with that hope. A former social worker, Pupek has, after all, described this little girl and the wrenching abuse surrounding her at every turn to such effect that we feel almost as if we share that life.

It is a deeply uncomfortable place to be. But Pupek has not meant us to be comfortable. Far from it. We have only that shred of hope that in the very first page, we are invited to read the notebook in which Ellie writes as a form of therapy. That means—Ellie has survived long enough to even get to therapy. Even as she sits in the cellar writing among the glass jars of pickled tomatoes, some of which begin quite eerily to look like the face of a pickled fetus.

One of those pickled objects had been. Baby Tom, her stillborn brother, had been in one of those jars because his mother, Ellie’s mother, couldn’t bear to part with him. And if that was not unbearable enough, consider scenes of a mother gone mad with some inner torment, taunted by a husband who is not only sleeping with a teenage girl, not so very much older than Ellie, but has even brought that girl into their home. To live. With him. Moving out of his marital bed into the sewing room. One can feel the palpable madness swirling off the written page like an evil vapor. Oh, the torments we inflict one upon the other …

Ellie observes all of this with the hopeful heart and na├»ve eyes of a young girl. Since the book is written in first-person narrative, we sense far more quickly than Ellie does exactly what it is that she is seeing. There’s a Lolita thing going on here. A brewing pedophilia. A middle-aged man sinking into perversion and temptation, leaving despair and madness in his wake. Ellie can only wonder why Daddy talks so long at the hardware store, where he is a long-time clerk, with the “tomato girl,” who brings her crops of reddened, plump fruit to sell. Ellie sees the way Daddy’s eyes linger overlong. That he sometimes touches the girl. That the girl touches him, and then, Ellie glimpses a quick kiss, and she struggles to understand. Tess, the tomato girl, comes from an abusive home, too. Daddy later tries to explain away his growing obsession with the primping teen girl—a cute blonde with too much make-up and earrings that dangle to her bare shoulders, snapping gum and paging through women’s magazines, oh so teen—by telling Ellie he is taking Tess in to save her from her abusive father. As if he were somehow saving one girl from an abusive father while inflicting it upon his own daughter. Oh, the power of rationalization …

Tess has occasional epileptic seizures, and while she is so incapacitated, her father has indeed taken, shall we say, advantage. Pupek develops here with expertise the mind games men play when they want their piece of female flesh. Tess’s father manages to tell himself he has the right, she’s his girl. Ellie’s father manages to paint himself a hero in his own eyes, bringing the teen into his own bed, under his own roof, insisting upon the compassion of his wife and young daughter. While his wife spirals into a demented and suicidal state—she can’t be fooled—Ellie, like most any child, dotes on her father and works and works to please him, to remain in the circle of his wandering eye, daily forgiving him, even as her understanding grows. She needs to forgive him. For her own sanity. This is her Daddy. And he does, after all, keep telling her how he loves her. How he needs her to be good. To be kind to sweet Tess. And the boundaries continue to be pushed farther and farther.

As such scenarios must, they eventually end in a splash of unspeakable suffering and an explosion of violence. There is a murder, there is a suicide, there is more than one emotional breakdown, and there is, in the center of it all, little Ellie, trying desperately to hold an unraveling world together. No one survives intact. By conclusion, the reader is exhausted with emotion, sighing with relief at one’s own saner world, but the realization remains: such things happen. Every day. In more and more homes, and perhaps even in the one next door. As our family protective services agencies are near bursting with cases of abuse, too many still going unreported, and domestic violence is on the increase, and values fall by the wayside in how we treat those in our primary relationships in pursuit of baser pleasures … the story of Ellie and Tess, the tomato girl, may grow as common as tomatoes.

Pupek, also a published poet, has made a worthy contribution with her first novel. Not only as a literary accomplishment, but also a social one.


ronaldo said...

great site..informative read...many thanks.

matt said...

groovy baby...good work.