Tuesday, July 04, 2023

The Secrets We Keep, by Cassie Gustafson

Emma's carefully manicured world is torn violently open when her father is arrested.  He's accused of hurting an unnamed minor, who quickly turns out to be Hannah, Emma's best friend.  Initially, Emma and Hannah try to maintain their friendship as their families circle the wagons and break into opposing factions.  Emma loyally defends her father, but cracks in her resolve appear almost immediately.  Something has been going on and the question is whether Emma is mad at Hannah for what she said or mad at someone else altogether?

It's a harrowing tale full of triggering scenes of abuse.  The sexual abuse, I was prepared for.  It was Emma's monstrous mother and her emotional abuse I wasn't quite set for.  Not only in denial of what her husband is doing to her daughter, Mom actively blames Emma for it as well.  And while I'm aware that that behavior is not unknown in these situations, it's brutally hard to read.   Emma's autistic and neglected younger brother adds yet more weight to a situation that doesn't actually need it.

The writing is superb and the use of second voice flashbacks  to describe scenes that become less and less ambiguous particularly effective.  A more experimental use of fairy tales seemed too heavy handed and distracting, but it added some depth to the depiction of the emotional trauma that Emma is experiencing.  And, of course, Emma herself is a major force.  We're naturally drawn to be sympathetic to her, of course, but Gustafson rewards us with rich character development.  In sum, a moving, traumatic read about friendship, family, and abuse -- best taken with frequent breaks and reminders that the world is not completely populated with monsters.

No comments: