Carolrhoda Books 2013
Evan has spent the last few years moving from school to school and girl to girl. He doesn’t think much about his peripatetic life, nor his emotionless relationships until both end him at the wrong end of a violent assault. His hitherto distant father is suddenly an active if alien presence in Evan’s life, moving them back to the cabin on Pearl Lake where he himself grew up. Evan finds himself suddenly immersed in a community where everyone knows everyone, girls are more than just potential hook ups and is faced with not just the repercussions of his attack but also with the possibility that life isn’t what he’s been previously living.
Evan is well and truly fucked up. Not just physically, although he’s not going to be fighting fit for a while, but mentally. On surface level, he’s clearly suffering from PTSD with a hefty side order of guilt and self-loathing in terms of the assault that opens the book but as his story progresses it becomes clear that Evan has been pretty messed up for quite a while. He is a character that could easily have come across as unlikable, even misogynistic, but he’s not. The new kid at every school, Evan uses sex as a way to connect in environments where he sees no point in making actual friends – why bother, when he’s only going to move on again?
Evan’s relationship with his father is clearly lacking emotion and his ability to connect on any level other than sex seems to have somewhat atrophied. As readers get to know him better, it’s clear that he doesn’t dislike nor disrespect the girls he sleeps with. He, in fact, kind of admires them, is nice to them (if aloof) and muses on the unfairness of perception in terms of men, woman and sex. It slowly becomes apparent that perhaps the reasons that his conquests are deleted so quickly from his phone and life has more to do with his own initial sexual experiences than anything else. He’s all too aware that the way he lives his life is far from ideal and as he ponders this a stark portrait emerges of a lonely boy, looking for a “more” that is exasperatingly unclear to him. Ultimately, Evan is a nice guy who has utterly lost his way.
On arriving in Pearl Lake, Evan meets a group of teenagers who refuse to let him be the new kid, absorbing him into their group with disconcerting determination. He finds himself almost unwillingly making actual friends. The group are a mixed bag of characters but all are well written. Baker, the girl who inevitably catches Evan’s practiced eye is a girl who is in the process of realising that, regardless of how many rules you impose, the world works in its own weird way. Their friendship is interesting in that it’s full of a tension that is both familiar and yet utterly alien to Evan. Like all the girls in Sex and Violence, Baker is very at ease with her own sexuality. All of the young women are portrayed as being informed, vocal and strong-minded in terms of their sex lives, whether they are doing the actual deed or choosing not to – something that cannot be seen to often in YA fiction. The fact that they are juxtaposed with Evan and his promiscuity issues is just one of the aspects that make Sex and Violence so very good. In addition the kids who live at the lake, Evan also starts to bond with townie Layne and his young family. Layne and his brother could easily have been stereotypical, wrong-side-of-the-tracks fodder but their kindness towards Evan and his grateful acceptance of it are one of the highlights of the book.
Sex and Violence, while having a compelling storyline, works best as a coming of age, stream of consciousness sort of deal. Evan has, by far, the strongest narrative voice that I have come across in a long time. Mesrobian rather beautifully imbues him with intelligence, self-knowledge and self-deprecating humour while also allowing readers to see what lies beneath before Evan sees it himself – not an easy trick to pull of when the entire book is seen from the depths of Evan’s screwed up mind. The setting is well chosen and well written, with a side story involving Evan’s family and an abandoned house adding both background and pathos although if the book has a flaw it is that these aspects were perhaps not explored as fully as possible and led to a degree of resolution that felt a little rushed. However, it’s a minor quibble when looking at a debut novel that is incredibly accomplished. Don’t be put off by the somewhat blunt title (surely dreamt up by the marketing department, yes?) – Sex and Violence is so much more than that and stands out as one of the top titles of 2013.
This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Sex and Violence is available now (although has sadly yet to pick up a UK publisher so head to the 'tinternet for a copy UK'ers). Thank you to Carolrhoda Books and Netgalley for providing us with this title to review.