I call these things I write about books
reviews, but for most items, these aren’t really reviews. They are chronicles of my experiences with books. Sometimes that’s more review like. Sometimes not. I never really try for objectivity. Lots of times these writings are more about me than they are the book. Sometimes the experience I have reading a book won’t be close to the experience someone else has. I am pretty sure that no one else will even come close to having the same experience I’ve had with Split, for a couple of reasons.
The first reason has to do with Deepa D. I bought Split in a charity auction for Con or Bust. I’ve mentioned them before. It’s an attempt to make a bigger science fiction bigger tent by paying the way for fans of color to attend science fiction conventions. Deepa offered a signed copy of her friend’s book, with her own post-it notes included. That’s what attracted me. I love talking books with intelligent book people (which Deepa is), and this could be a slice of book conversation.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from her notes. It wouldn’t be like a review, written after the fact. I figured they would be more immediate and personal. And these were. Since you, dear reader, did not get these notes and will not ever get these notes, you did not read the same thing I did. They changed the experience of reading Split, and enhanced it. Deepa didn’t write anything particularly expository. Just little bits of her own personal reactions as things went along. (If it were Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, it’d be stuff like
Oh Sandman, why so emo?) The effect was akin to watching a movie with a friend sitting in the next seat. I comment in their ear periodically (and they in mine). Not loudly, and not long, because no one wants to miss what’s going on next. Just little bits here and there. That’s what this was like, and it was awesome. At least it was with Deepa’s commentary. I’m only going to post her first note, because I paid well for the privilege and don’t feel like sharing.
The second reason is less exclusive, but still extremely personal. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I know this is the first time I’ve written about it on this blog. My father died when I was just two years old, and my mother remarried a couple of years later. My step-father hit me far more than is acceptable. I won’t write more about that right now, because I’ve made peace with him. Making peace doesn’t fix things though. I was, and to this day remain, somewhat broken.
Split is about the aftermath of child abuse. I did not know this when I bought the book. I did not know this until I started reading the book. I might have left the book alone had I known. I expect fiction about child abuse to feel exploitive. Graphic descriptions trigger very emotional responses in me. I don’t want to go through that for something that exploits my experience. Split was very triggering, not just because it’s graphic, but because it’s very good. Ms. Avasthi gets it, in more ways than one.
Split opens with Jace Witherspoon showing up on his brother Christian’s doorstep in Albuquerque. Christian left home five years earlier at age 17, and Jace hasn’t heard from or seen Christian since. After Christian left, their father turned his violent attention toward 11 year old Jace. Their mother received a good share of violence too. Both boys reached a breaking point. The solution both turned to was leaving. Their mother remains living with Judge Walter Witherspoon.
Split is about what happens afterward. Much stuff I’ve seen is about what happens before. Sometimes it’s about how the cycle repeats and the abused turn into abusers. Split is different. Split is about recovery. Fucked up, messed up, painful, recovery. The people present don’t drag them down. They build them up. Jace and Christian build relationships. Split is hopeful all the way through, but not so positive as to be a sure thing. Steps forward and steps back, and I read through to the end worried that I would lose my friendships with these characters in one final giant leap backward. Either way, in Ms. Avasthi’s hands, it would have been the right ending.
Nearly every character in the book is likable but flawed. Jace and Christian are the highlights, of course. But even the secondary characters like Christian’s girlfriend Mirriam Ngu down to Jace’s soccer and romantic rival Eric were people I cared about.
A few paragraphs back I wrote that often fiction about abuse feels exploitive. There’s a few aspects to that. The most obvious is the feeling that it’s written for looky-loos, the people who slow down at an accident on the freeway to see what happened. Everyone has done something like that on occasion, including me, and some more than others. Child abuse stories go the route of voyeurism much of the time. Fine caring people can read it and think
oh how horrible for those children and soothe themselves with their own caringness. One reason I don’t write much about my experience is I don’t want people tut-tut-ing over me.
A second way is when some awful stereotypes are used. I cringe whenever I read a story where an abused kid starts hurting animals and by chapter three is cackling as he uses a laptop to remotely cause a plane to crash (or similar kinds of evil-doing). Less of a caricature, but still just as cardboard, is the abused kid who grows up to abuse his own kids. That happens a lot in real life, but to be written in a non-exploitive manner requires a lot of work.
Split manages to avoid those issues very well. One of the things that is apparent very quickly is that Jace is a bastard. He can be charming as hell, but when something sets him on edge, he isn’t very nice. A good example is in his new school he goes out for the soccer team, which is pretty bad when he joins mid-season. The coach is condescending toward him, as is the team captain. Jace keeps quiet, but promptly embarrasses several teammates defending against him in scrimmage. He’s not just showing he knows his stuff; he wants to put them in their place. He knows the effect his actions have, and regrets it at times. But when irritated or angry, he does it anyway. It’s subtle characterization that makes him very believable.
Christian, like me, handles his past by not talking about it. For him, talk takes him back and he relives. He also runs. Running becomes a zen-like meditation for him, taking him to a mental space where he just is. His methods help him successfully cope, but they also have not fixed him. They are merely temporary.
I bring these two characterizations up because the brothers handle things very differently. This is key to avoiding the exploitive caricatures. And too often in real life people assume there’s a one size fits all pattern to us as well as how to handle us. There isn’t. At one point in the book, Christian realizes that his brother’s experience is not his experience. By leaving, Christian changed the household dynamic. He has no idea what the experience might have been like because he wasn’t there, even if he knew Jace had been abused using the same methods.
One other way that books about abuse can fall down is where the point is obviously to teach readers how they can
help by having a caring and persevering teacher/social worker break through the kid’s shell. It’s a version of the Freedom Writers for a different social problem. When it’s a social worker’s story, you know either the kid’s gonna make it, or the social worker’s life will be enriched by the whole experience as he moves on to his next challenge. Split is not a social worker’s story. It’s doesn’t condescend that way. As a story about the kids, it becomes unpredictable and very real.
After reading my review over a few times, I realized something I forgot to write about. I mention that I forgot because it’s indicative of my history, and illustrates one of the reasons why I believe that reviewing really can’t ever be objective. I’ve been writing mostly about getting abuse right and wrong. That’s not the only way to look at the novel though, but in retrospect it’s what my head spins around. It’s also very much about the complex relationship between the brothers. Neither of them change on their own. And neither do they fall in together as soldiers fighting a common enemy. They love each other. They scared each other. And they need each other. Christian feels duty bound to help Jace when he shows up on his doorstep. But he doesn’t want to throw himself into it. Jace disrupts his strategy of burying his past. Occasionally the text moves away from the pair, but Ms. Avasthi brings it back quickly (and sometimes forcefully) every time.
There are two things about the book that I have mixed feelings on. They aren’t drawbacks exactly, but they make me think about things somewhat differently. As they both involve spoilers, I’m going to put them on page 2 (as well as something I really liked about the ending).
Split covers the most important part of child abuse aside from stopping them in the first place, what happens afterward, an under-explored part of the picture. It does so with believable plot and flawed characters I liked. The narrative and author obviously care about kids in these situations, making for fine story.
A few other blogged reviews:
- Shadowy Duck in Asian American Literature Fans
- The Heart Is a Lonely Reader
- Abstractions of Chinchilla
- GAL Novelty
- Engine Summer
Author: Swati Avasthi
Cover creator: The Heads of State
Imprint / publisher: Alfred A. Knopf / Random House
Length: 282 p.
Publication date: March 2010