Monday, December 21, 2020

What Unbreakable Looks Like, by Kate McLaughlin

Bound as sex slaves in a seedy Connecticut motel, "Poppy" and the other girls live a hellish existence.  But the trauma doesn't end when she is rescued in a police raid and claimed by an estranged aunt and uncle.  For as much as they want to help her rebuild her life, Lex (her real name) has a lot to process and work through.  A process that experiences a serious set back when she tries to return to school to get her diploma and falls victim to an attack by her fellow students. 

Seeing herself as damaged, she can't believe that anyone would want her (and readers will also be similarly impressed at the amazing generosity of the aunt), but with time we Lex learns to trust again.  Eventually, she even gains enough strength to fight back.

The book's subject matter is difficult to read and one of the strengths of the novel is the careful attention to detail that McLaughlin gives to it.  It's well-researched and no holds are barred in its explicit (but not exploitative) details.  Lex is similarly memorable.  A curious combination of insightful and ignorant, her voice is a bit hard to pin down.  In the beginning, I underestimated her as an inarticulate drop-out but as she regains confidence she becomes reflective and wise beyond her years.  Ironically, the great strength of her characterization can be credited to the weak writing of the book (more on that below).  In failing to develop a consistent voice for her protagonist, McLaughlin actually makes her a compelling study on contrasts.

But in the end, the book suffers from its writing. Frequent repetition and jarring plot jumps suggest that more revision and editing was needed.  McLaughlin has lots of great detail to share and is reluctant to pare it down so by the end she resorts literally to a lecture to fit it all in.  That may achieve political aims, but it sidelines Lex and her story and relegates her to a case study.  And the obvious dramatic payoff of watching Lex's attackers come to justice is diminished by not depicting any of it.  With all this good raw material and a compelling concept, it seems a disappointment. 

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