He has coated me with approval again in a way that doesn’t wash off.
A warning is made in advance of Gayle Towell’s novella, Blood Gravity: that it is a work rife with psychological triggers. This is not to be taken lightly, for even for those never subjected to the levels of abuse that the book’s protagonist, Jake Smith, 20, has endured since childhood, it is a grueling experience that tests the nerves and unsettles the soul. That it is exceptionally well-written and sensitive to its protagonist’s plight goes a long way to making it an endurable, challenging, and, because of such employed skill, ultimately gratifying read.
Jake has been sexually abused by his father since early adolescence, and he fears the same fate may be awaiting his five-year-old kid brother, Ben. After being invited on a camping trip by his father during a school break, Jake agrees to go, if only so Ben would not be alone with him. Despite having kept his younger brother safe, the trip yields awful results for Jake, who has managed to avoid abuse since having left for college, never mind that he has transferred the guilt into self-cutting. Triggered into a relapse of near-debilitating self-doubt and panic, Jake eventually leaves school and takes a menial job and apartment near the house to be close to Ben.
Blood Gravity is a delicate weave between the tiny whimpers of human suffering in contrast to the enormity of nature. Jake’s concern for Ben’s welfare encourages an impromptu trip to see the giant redwoods in California, where he inculcates his innocent brother as to the warning signs he should be on the lookout for regarding his father. They travel to a local Oregon park, where the solar system has been spaced out by planet along the hiking trail at the distance proportions they exist in out in space—a quiet, reflective place Jake returns to in order to ponder his social shortcomings (especially after a pretty classmate in his psych class, Rachel, starts to ingratiate herself to him), as well as the inescapable reach of his father.
Dad is a force like gravity. I roll downhill to him. And yet I want to be free of him. Or I know that’s what I should want. But outside of his reach is a great, dark nothing.
The family patriarch is a frightening example of monstrous deflection and opportunity, rendered all the scarier by his seemingly good-natured, down-home façade. He maintains a grip of fear on his ineffectual wife while exacerbating the insecurities of his bed-wetting younger son. When on the camping trip Jake warns his father not to hurt Ben, his father reacts with wounded surprise, offering the cryptic reply: “I’d never do anything to your brother he didn’t ask for.”
Intended as a prequel to her forthcoming Scars series, Towell has effectively set the stage for an exploration of the dynamics between family members who carom between all the plausible deniability, lies, and out-and-out disavowals that spume at the surface of all abusive relationships. Fiction dealing with sexual abuse, especially of children, is difficult to pull off without inundating the reader with unrelenting pathos, but Towell has undertaken this first chapter with indelible skill and dignity.
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