Saturday, January 14, 2023

We Are the Ashes, We Are the Fire, by Joy McCullough

After Em's older sister was raped, Em supported and fought for her sister through the whole process of seeking justice.  And when the jury found the attacker guilty, she rejoiced that her quest was at an end.  But when the judge sets aside the verdict and releases the rapist with time served, Em realizes that the fight is not over and never will be.  And while her sister and her family want to move on, Em finds that she can't.  Everywhere she looks she sees the toxic masculinity that perpetuates violence against women.  So, instead, she funnels her anguish into a story she is writing about a medieval woman who seeks vengeance for the violence inflicted upon her family.  The story, meant to provide release and catharsis, instead takes over Em's life, leading to life-threatening consequences.

I loved the conceptual structure of the book, which tells the contemporary story in prose while placing the historical story-within-a-story in verse.  However, the concept eventually fell flat because the verse was simply not very good.  In fact, given the lyricism of the main character, I think I would have preferred Em's story to be in verse and her historical novel to be the part in prose.  

The story also suffers because the heroine is simply not all that compelling.  Em's character is intense, angry, and wound-up...and largely painted into a corner.  As angry as she starts off, she can undergo very little growth throughout the story, which makes her a hard sell for the reader.  The story itself was strong, though, and I particularly liked the nuanced depiction of the family members, showing how each was affected differently by the assault and the subsequent failure to punish the assailant.  McCullough writes excellent characters but made a strategic misjudgment in the portrayal of Em.

Overall, a story with a lot of promise and a tremendously important topic, but ultimately failing to deliver a story that truly moved me.

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