Thursday, October 15, 2009

13 1/2 by Nevada Barr

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Hardcover: 320 pages

• Publisher: Vanguard Press (October 6, 2009)

• Price: $25.95

• ISBN-10: 1593155530

• ISBN-13: 978-1593155537

I am holding Nevada Barr responsible: since picking up her newest novel, 13 ½, I have been losing sleep. Until the very last page had been read, sleep continued to evade me.

In all my lifelong voracious reading habits, I continue to find that writers can generally be classified in one of two groups: fine literary writers or terrific storytellers. Because the skill set and high level of artistry required is quite different for each group, rarely do the two groups meet and mesh. But Nevada Barr stands neatly balanced, with one foot inside each of these two groups. She is a fine writer, with literary finesse, and she is one heck of a storyteller.

Barr kept me awake with her storytelling, but not before messing with my head a bit, along with my sleep patterns. When I first opened the cover of 13 ½, I was thrown into a horrific scene of sexual molestation. Polly, a girl not yet nine years old, is being raped by her mother’s whiskey-chugging boyfriend. Rather than protect and defend her daughter, Polly’s alcoholic mother gets jealous and angry with her. Too frequently, this scenario is all too real. Victims become victimizers, and Polly’s mother, her own self-esteem nonexistent, allows her daughter to become victimized. At such a very tender age, this child understands the male psyche far beyond what she should: “Though Polly’s birthday wasn’t for a couple weeks, she already knew what it meant when men’s eyes went gooey and nasty.”

The message of this scene, however, is not so much victimization as survival skills. Polly grows up to be a smart woman, one who has fortunately been strong enough to break the cycle of abuse and instead is a loving and protective mother of her own children.

Stage left, enter another main character: Butcher Boy. This child, Dylan, wakes into a family massacre, his parents murdered with an axe, his baby sister dead, his older brother badly wounded. He alone is whole, however dazed. Eleven years old, he is dragged to court and prosecuted for the vicious murder of his family. The boy hardly seems able to function as his mind and emotions shut down under the weight of something so immense, so incomprehensible. Only his surviving brother stands by him.

Barr does a wonderful job of describing a juvenile justice system that is highly dysfunctional. Children who end up in juvenile delinquent homes, more often than not already coming from abusive homes, are often subjected to more abuse by the very staff who is supposed to help them rehabilitate. Reality, alas, matches fiction, and Barr has shone an important spotlight on a growing problem in our society. Dylan is thrown away, with no one caring enough to deal with his problems, and he spends years in a world where guards beat and rape little boys, psychologists and social workers conduct unethical experiments on their young prey, and wardens look the other way. The only person left who seems to care that Dylan is even alive is his brother Rich.

Back and forth. The novel is written in scenes that move from Polly to Dylan and his brother Rich, then suddenly switching to Marshall Marchand and his brother, Danny, a couple of stand-up guys. Between chapters are blood-curdling little inserts, written in first person, of child murderers, mothers who kill their babies, and other psychopaths. A bit disorienting, and I was a little annoyed at being jarred back and forth between all these characters … until it started to fall into place. The Marchand brothers enter into the adult Polly’s world, and by now, also her two young daughters.

Suspense growing, tension tightening, the reader is led along, then pulled into a vortex of escalating horror. Polly and her girls are in danger, and as a mother, my heart pounded with hers, knowing all that she does to protect her own, I would do, too. Yet how clear is the mind of one who has been so badly abused as a child? Does Polly still have the skills to know who to trust and who is just another victimizer? The sad truth is that many who are molested as children, grow up to be attracted like magnets to more molesters, not knowing anything else. Is Polly protecting her daughters from the right man? Does her love for one of the Marchand brothers cloud her judgment?

The clock on my nightstand screaming at me that I should be sound asleep on a work night, I keep reading. And reading. Must know.

Another character to whom we are introduced is the Woman in Red. She reads Tarot-cards and is big, and loud, and impossible to miss. Almost no one notices that inside this woman is complete emotional devastation—another victim of abuse. Barr excels in her literary descriptions when Polly and this woman meet.

“The Woman in Red it shall be,” Polly said and smiled as ghosts of her past walked away giggling. She’d noticed the reader on previous pilgrimages to the square in search of her future. It was hard not to. Shades of shrieking sunset, roses, and hearts of fire, cherries, apples, blood, and wine were thrown together. If one shade of red was loud, this woman’s ensemble was cacophonous.

“Before time and sunlight had taken its toll, her khaki-colored setup had evidently been as red as the rest of her. As she shifted her considerable weight, her chair’s wooden frame moved and flashed thin ribbons of the canvas’s original color, that of freshly butchered meat. Polly descended the cathedral steps and the fortune-teller leaned forward, reaching out with a beggar’s aspect—or that of a drowning woman bent on pulling her rescuer down. ‘For zee lady, zee reading eez free,’ she said in a voice both ruined and childlike, the worn-out voice tape of a Chatty Cathy doll with a fake French accent. Hucksters and harlots never honestly meant anything was free. Having been a little of both in her time, Polly knew ‘free’ just opened the bargaining.”

An especially masterly scene in Barr’s psychological thriller is one in which a Tarot-card reader is murdered—by the man she loves. With expertise, Barr describes the psychological devastation that is necessary for a woman to become emotionally battered, becoming utterly helpless to defend herself, even against her own murderer. She loves this villain, and despises herself, right up to her last breath, even as the ax comes down.

Then, when Polly finds the dead woman’s body, the villain comes after her.

“Scrabbling on sliding magazines, Polly was losing ground. The man’s fingers were wire cables, his strength enough to drag her backwards. Far stronger than she, he could have hammered her kidneys with balled fists; he could have thrown himself upon her and snapped her neck or slammed her head into the floor. He did none of these things; slowly, as if he savored the process, he was pulling her into himself, swallowing her as a snake would swallow a mouse. Garbage piled up under Polly’s chin, drowning her. Scrabbling on the glossy magazines, her hands found no purchase…”

Although I do have to confess here that I had the mystery solved long before the conclusion of the novel, it did not slow my eager reading by one half of a page turn. I did not want to miss any of Barr’s pulsing-with-life descriptions, deep dives into the most shadowy parts of human nature, and the intricacies of dance between victim and victimizer. I wanted to see justice done. And I wanted to read exactly how Barr would put it into words. The images she created are lasting long beyond the final page. The important messages she illustrates remain even longer: abuse of any kind causes unspeakable damage, and those of us who do nothing about a broken juvenile justice system, or the increase of domestic violence, or look past the suffering of the battered, make such crime possible. This novel is more than a thriller. This is no time to sleep. This is a wake-up call.

Nevada Barr is an award-winning novelist and New York Times bestselling author. Among other works, she is also well known as the author of the Anna Pigeon mysteries (see my earlier review of Borderline).

~Zinta Aistars for The Smoking Poet, Fall 2009

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