Oh, god, it’s so beautiful and sad, this book. It’s the kind of book that takes recovering from, the type of book that you’re almost thankful you don’t see more of—but then after a while you’re not. You’re wishing you could find another book like it. But you can’t.
It’s about Nina, except that’s not her real name, that’s just the name she uses. We never find out her real name, or where her parents are, just that they’ve left her in this big house alone and she’s working some lame job and hanging out with her boyfriend at the bar.
When Nina starts hanging out in front of the bar and going with men back to their cars, she says she does it for money, but she also knows that’s not true. And maybe that’s the theme of this gorgeous novel, the reason she does what she does, which is not the kind of thing one says in a sentence, or even a paragraph. It takes a whole book.
At some point a bad customer takes Nina home, and she watches as the man abuses his wife, Ingrid. His wife is despondent because her daughter died and it turns out that her daughter died at the hands of her husband. It also turns out that Nina looks like their daughter and is soon dressing in their daughter’s clothes. It’s more complicated than that. Ingrid was complicit in the murder and claims it was at her urging that that her husband brought Nina home. Nina was Ingrid’s gift. Ingrid urges Nina to run away with her and when Nina doesn’t Ingrid runs away without her. It’s not long after that Ingrid’s husband has Nina confined to a mental hospital.
The book is filled with sex, most of it just barely consensual. And when I started I wondered if there wasn’t maybe too much sex. I wondered if I was reading erotica or literature. But there wasn’t too much sex. And it’s never gratuitous. It’s graphic, but not without reason, and you always know that really what you’re reading about is something else, something very human and something that maybe sits inside a lot of us. It’s that destructive thing that we keep compartmentalized because it would be too much to acknowledge. Damage suffered at some point that has bubbled to the surface, a dangerous need. This is how Heather Lewis writes about that:
She got my shoes and socks off, my pants, my underwear. I still had my shirt on and I pulled it around me. But doing this made it hard to sit up and I felt I should try to stay upright. I had this idea I should keep an eye on her. And so I couldn’t hold myself up for long, not when lying back seemed so much easier.
That’s Nina with Beth, who got her released from the mental hospital. In the hospital Beth was Nina’s therapist and on the outside she’s Nina’s probation officer. Nina seems to bring this out in people; with her openness and vulnerability other characters see her as a victim, which she is, or as the person that is willing to fulfill their fantasy, the fantasy that no one else will fulfill, which is also true.
The final chapters are a tragic indictment and exposé of everything horrible we are capable of doing to one another and the almost equally horrible things we are capable of doing to ourselves. The amazing thing is that a book like this was published at all. Because people don’t like sad books. Or at least that’s what I’m told.