Who made God’s washing machine?
Who made the pointy things that stuck in God’s feet?
Let’s draw comparisons as a jump off point for this one. This book was like that movie Love Actually without the Wet Wet Wet Christmas and with every character living out their own personal versions of hell, taking a trajectory without any conceivable escape. I think I was expecting something along the lines of R-rated Courtney Summers or Hannah Harrington but ended up feeling like I read an exploded, novelization of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun. Which is all sorts of fucked up, intense, discordant and crazy and will hopefully put off those who get offended by cheating (between siblings no less), statutory rape, underaged sex, bullying, animal cruelty (those poor lobsters!), cults and high school violence. But you, yes you with an appreciation for all things taboo, miserable and dysfunctional characters, you and Chris Cornell will have a field day with this one.
Save Yourself is about two families living in the polar opposites of a town that sounds suspiciously like those TV/movie towns where law enforcement exists in the periphery, and only comes in when the protagonists have already made a mess of themselves. So yes, hell.
Living in the shadows of the crime committed by their father years ago, the Cusimanos are Ratchetsburg’s pariahs, reducing Mike and Patrick to nothing more than the sons of an alcoholic child killer. The brothers try to carry on, strive for some semblance of normalcy with Caro, Mike’s girlfriend who lives with them in the very house where their family’s demise began. But the town is long on the forgetting and forgiving department. While Mike chooses optimistic oblivion, Patrick carries the burden of being the one to call the police on their father all those years ago. He ends up committing the Great Apocalyptic Mistake of sleeping with Caro and because that’s not enough fun for one plate, he eventually gets entangled with a seventeen year-old goth stalker, Layla Elshere.
Verna Elshere is a high school freshman, stepping in to a life bearing the shadows cast by her sister Layla. They are daughters of a basement minister, the good kind of girls who wear Ruby Promise rings, pray to God and loves everybody. When once Layla was ridiculed to being a Jesus kind of girl, she got worse and widespread abuse from school when she inadvertently kicked off the publicised battle of her father’s worship group against sex education. This leads Layla to lash out against her parents and the world at large, finding shelter and acceptance instead in the fringe growth group led by a charismatic and mysterious boy Justinian. The same boy Verna’s growing more and more drawn to as the harsh reality of high school continue to punish her for Layla’s perceived faults.
Alone in her bedroom, Verna was Bathsheba. She was the Whore of Babylon. She was all four of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, she was Salome, she was the Beast, she was the apple. She was one of the nameless children who died in Sodom when fire and brimstone rained down the sky.
I’ve read a lot of edgy authors fir the first time this year but very few actually impressed me as much as Kelly Braffet. At the end of the book, she provided the short story (Hung Up) from which this novel was based from and it was quite interesting to see the bare skeleton from which this was moulded from. I thought it was brilliant, how well placed the meat and flesh she added on to make it into a novel, because in my humblest opinion, this was some piece of work. One that was disturbing and awkward and depressing delivered with impressive control and depth. It did take me a while to piece together half of the story with the other, connect the dots and find the underlying pulse where this was coming from. And to be honest, I’m still not quite sure I’ve made every crevice, figured each nook and cranny of hurt and structured anger this made me feel. Because for a stretch the switching perspectives between Patrick, Caro and Verna were independently powerful but the overall picture was hard to discern for me. Each had its own charm that made you want to savour each chapter, not quite ready to yield the reins back to the other third of the narrative while also excited to pick up the other loose thread, dread and excitement simultaneously preventing you from looking anywhere else but forward.
It was THAT kind of a read.
The kind that made you involved for each character’s arc. The kind that will make you want to slap and hug these people. It was atmospheric, pervading and tangibly familiar: the smell of loss and defeat wafts through the pages and it smells like a high school bathroom and a convenience store at midnight, while hope and comfort smells like scotch tape. I ended up having a headache after putting this down because it’s been a while since words have punched me so effectively in the gut, the powerlessness of the characters so potent that it transports you to a place that’s familiar: harrowingly nightmarish and real.
All she had ever wanted was a world she could count o and every time she thought she had it somebody took it away from her, somebody kicked her out or traded her in or walked away without a word. She never learned. Nothing ever changed.
I’ve read my share of disturbing but this just upped the bar a little higher. You know how awful high school can be? You may just know a little more with this one. And you might have some preconceived notions about this book, some expectations when your interest was piqued with the brotherly cheating and all those things I listed above. I don’t think one would be disappointed but I don’t think it would be anything one would expect either.
For all its triumphs, I thought this book ended rather abruptly, tying some ends haphazardly and not tying some at all. Though it could probably be explained as ambiguous at best in which case, I’m charting this as one of the most depressing non-endings I’ve read in a while. Layla being the hinge character that joins both half of the story felt a little too volatile and disjointed from the character in her world and Patrick's world.. It could be argued its a facet of her personal conflict, of a troubled teen working out the kinks of her angst and the consequences of her choices and I suppose I’m reluctantly willing to accept that as an excuse. And I thought the last few climactic chapters lacked a certain degree of urgency. Justinian, who gave off such an intense and brilliant Jim Jones vibe, lacked the necessary weight and punch in the threat department that all that rapid-fire intensity felt a little dulled and muffled.
I swore I wasn’t going to talk too much about this book because it’s really one of those that will take you for a ride if you let it.
And I do hope you let it.
Review Copy courtesy of the publishers thru BloggingForBooks.