Women’s Action & Adventure/Romance/Contemporary Fiction
Having enjoyed Anne Montgomery’s ‘A Light in the Desert’, I thought I’d give this new novel a try. I’ve never been to the USA, and frequently find novels set there both self-congratulatory and full of references that are meaningless to me as a UK reader. But the previous novel had managed to avoid those failings, so I was happy to give this one a go.
Becca, the story’s protagonist, is a victim of domestic abuse, one of the themes well represented in the book, from the north-eastern state of New Jersey. As someone familiar with life in a populous region and from a location on the doorstep of New York, she escapes her husband’s prison to find refuge with strangers in the desert lands of the western state of Arizona. The author cleverly uses the geographical contrasts of the two regions to hint at character differences between the inhabitants.
Becca’s story is engaging, depressing, inspiring, difficult, and uplifting as she faces the contrasts of her new life with her old and tries to come to terms with her dreadful upbringing and her mistaken marriage to a cruel, manipulative, self-serving man who sees her as just another possession to be worn as a sign of his perceived success.
Underlying the tale of her new and confusing but promising life is the fear that her jealous, possessive husband may find her and continue his appalling mental, spiritual and physical torture. The relationship of abused women to their tormentors is described with compassion, understanding and some despair.
Becca’s childhood is central to her victimisation, as her parents raised her without love and were concerned only with how she could reflect and elevate their own status by being the person they wished her to be. No concern was ever shown regarding her wishes, no appreciation of her natural talents, by this pair of individuals that consisted of a mother who accepted physical abuse as normal and a father utterly devoid of respect, love, or concern for his daughter’s welfare. The novel sensitively depicts this familial serial tragedy, understanding the inevitable sequencing of behaviour whilst showing that an escape from the vicious circle is possible, given a combination of courage from the victim and a circle of protective and understanding friends.
Running alongside the marital violence story, as a contrast to her own experience, is the loving relationship of Becca’s protectors, her chance to re-invigorate her early enjoyment of art and to rediscover her very real talent with brush and paints.
A second thread, and another theme of the novel, is man’s relationship with nature. In this case represented by the dilemma faced by a burgeoning human population in an area with limited natural resources over the needs of a growing population of feral horses. It’s a fitting metaphor for the world in general as it continues to increase humanity’s overbearing numbers at the expense of all other wildlife and slowly comes to the realisation that the only solution to a serious and urgent problem is to stop the increase in our population. This solution is not stated but is the inevitable conclusion any sensible reader will reach given the facts.
The horse element of the story slightly grated on me with its anthropomorphism. I was inevitably drawn to a comparison with William Horwood’s ‘The Stonor Eagles’, which cleverly combines the fates of a threatened wild species with the rising ambitions and talents of a gifted artist. In that book, however, the eagles’ story is most definitely told from their point of view, without reference to purely human traits or emotions. Nevertheless, the story of the horses is engaging and illuminating, and forms an appropriate contrast to that of Becca.
The characters, an essential element of any fictional work, are real people. There are no carboard cut-outs here. They are well presented, warts and all. But, as with any author thoroughly at home with their characters, they are drawn with compassion and love. Even the wicked antagonist is given some reason for his appalling actions.
There is a tendency for current American novels to give undue attention to certain aspects of life. Food and clothes in particular can almost become starring characters in their own right. Such detailed description underlines the obsessive nature of the country with its excessive consumption, and, in this book, I could never quite decide whether the depiction was a subtle attempt to alert US readers to their destructive greed and excess or simply an innocent and unaware description of everyday life. In fact, as an example of life in white, well-off USA, it does very well.
I enjoyed the read, engaged with the characters, and was able to empathise with most, and at least understand the societal origins of the antagonist’s behaviour and attitudes. A well-rounded story that would be a good read for as many men as the women for whom it is currently promoted.
[Any review is a personal opinion. No reviewer can represent the view of anyone else. The best we can manage is an honest reaction to any given book.]