The following guest review comes from Jyoti Minocha, a gregarious bibliophile who loves spreading the word about good books. With a particular fondness for teen and young adult literature, her reviews will mostly capture unique and interesting picks in that genre. Please join me in welcoming Jyoti to Saffron Tree!
Author: Swati Avasthi
Genre: Teen/YA Fiction
Swati Avasthi’s first novel, Split, is one of those compelling reads that are carried around the house until they’re finished. It was hard to put this one down. She builds suspense craftily, with the precision of a clock-winder, pacing violence and horrific memories with the silly, the mundane, and the heartrending, as the teenage protagonist in her novel gives a firsthand account of the emotional and physical abuse he has been subjected to by a brutal father.
The book is based partly on her experiences coordinating a legal clinic for victims of domestic violence, and it couldn’t have done a better job of representing her clients’ voices. The first person protagonist, Jace, is a 16 year old teen, a soccer jock, an A student and the son of a highly respected judge. The opening scene finds Jace outside his older brother’s apartment, with a “relandscaped face” (courtesy of his father). He has driven all night from Albuquerque to Chicago, and is agonizing over ringing the doorbell and reintroducing himself, his split lip and his desperate neediness, to the brother who ran away from home when Jace was 11.
One of Ms. Avasthi’s major strengths is her ability to delicately peel back her characters’ skins and reveal the raw emotion and self doubt entangled inside. Almost immediately, the reader begins to inhabit Jace’s mind as thoughts and feelings race through it. For e.g., this is Jace, as he imagines what will happen when his brother opens the door.
He’ll throw open the door and hug me until I can’t breathe. There’ll be a pizza feast laid out on the banquet table: four pies, all pepperoni and pineapple. (Okay, this part might be influenced by the fact that I haven’t eaten in ten hours.) He’ll wrap an arm around my shoulder and say, “I’ve been looking out for you, even from here.”
Or maybe I’ll be overwhelmed by the sweet smell of pot, and his hair will be sticking up wildly, and he’ll mug me for the $3.84 I have left Or maybe he won’t recognize me. His brother recognizes him of course, but his welcome is lukewarm; Jace is part of a memory he is trying to erase. However, guilt at leaving Jace behind and long buried affection for his younger sibling eventually force themselves to the surface, and he allows Jace to stay with him while he figures out his next move. The process of bonding between the brothers also involves talking about, and coming to terms with, the experiences both of them have been through, and Ms. Avasthi does this as naturally as possible, in the everyday lingo of adolescence(Jace) and young adulthood (his older brother, Christian). I really enjoyed the easy flow of conversation--- it felt like I was eavesdropping in a high school.
I think a sample from the end of the first chapter, a chilling exchange between the two siblings, will give you a good idea of the flavor of this book.
When he turns back, he says, “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Did he kill her?”
At this point, the reader is severely hooked; we want more of this dysfunctional family: who they are, what makes them tick and how they reached this terrible crossroad in their lives. We follow Jace through his journey, as he reconnects with his brother and tries to salvage his life in a new school. We see all the incidental wreckage that trails abuse; the feelings of abandonment and the fear of homelessness, the uprooting of stability and a healthy sense of selfhood. But more than that, we are shown how abuse itself is a self-pollinating plant, whose seeds are planted easily in the tender soil of the next generation. We realize that Jace is running not just from his father, but from his own self as well; from a fear of what he feels he is beginning to become. Slowly, with a well paced momentum, the reader is informed that Jace has his own trail of abuse; he roughed up the girlfriend he left behind and there is a warrant out for his arrest.
While Jace’s psychic wounds are open and bleeding, his brother has walled emotion off and thrown away the key. The spotlight shifts alternately and skillfully on these two typical and very common reactions to abusive relationships, and the reader begins to empathize and dive deeper into the depth of feeling that is hinted at below the surface.
Although their shattered past and their psychological scars feature prominently throughout the book, Ms. Avasthi does a good job of not making memories of abuse the fulcrum of the brothers’ lives. We get glimpses of Jace in the middle of all the everyday frustrations, fears, and simple goofiness that typify the teen years. The reader senses the promise of healing in the youthful resilience the two brothers exhibit.
The story builds momentum around Jace’s desire to bring his mother over, and to reunite the three of them as a family. As the suspense increases and emotions unravel, the reader realizes, long before Jace does, that Mom isn’t coming and that she is trapped in a psychological black hole. She’s had her spirit broken by her husband’s fists, and her hope squashed by his mercilessness; in one scene her husband cuts out an article from the newspaper about a man who was acquitted for killing his wife, and reads it to her after a particularly brutal beating. She
can no longer conceive of a universe that can be a kinder, gentler, protective place.
Finally, Jace convinces his brother to come with him to fetch her, and the two brothers drive back to their childhood home together. Jace confronts some of his demons, including the ex-girlfriend he battered, and his unconscious anger at his mother for making him ‘look out for her instead of the other way around.’ The novel ends with both Jace and his brother in a hopeful place, survivors moving towards safer ground.
If I were to suggest one thing I would like to see more of in this book it would be a fuller dimension to the characters of Mother and Father. Jace and his brother are sketched out so vividly, in three dimensions, that one hungers to hear more of the other two voices in this tragic quartet. Although Ms. Avasthi does narrate some soft moments between the father and Jace, he seems to be all anger and manipulative brutality. Mother seems somewhat one-dimensional as well; we see her as crushed and mousy. I would have liked to see more of her life before she became a victim and still had some fighting spirit to her.
On the whole, a very readable and thought-provoking book.