When we meet Theo, he has just left his last ‘girlfriend’ a woman who burned his hands with a lit cigarette until he screamed because she knew he would not return to her. He is searching for inner peace, love, resolution. It's hard to imagine these are things Theo will ever find.
The story, told in reverse, unfolds like a bleeding rose, slow motion of a life unraveled before it ever began. We learn of Theo’s parent’s in the middle of the book, but do not meet them until almost the last page. Similarly, we experience Theo’s childhood as an orphan in America’s child protection system: a violent, indifferent world where social workers are burned out, children are treated as inmates and protection comes in the form of a sexual predator who rapes Theo in exchange for protection from bashings by older boys. There’s very little joy in this man’s life, the only high points are drug, alcohol or pain induced haze where he can escape the gnawing pain.
The reader is thrust into a world of sadomasochism, sexual deviance, drug abuse, violence -- the dark, murky underbelly of society that many of us wilfully ignore. This is a world I don’t fully comprehend, or even condone, and I found it confronting… yet, as I got to know more of Theo’s life, his personality, the degree to which all independence and self-preservation had been denied him, his choices make sense. I wish they didn't, but they do.
“I want to tell Ambellina something, but I don’t trust her. She squeezes the handcuffs closed on my wrists. She also has a blindfold, which she wraps over my eyes. She runs tape over my mouth and I start to shake my head no and scream but it’s just muffled and she’s telling me to shut up again but I can’t. I knock into the wall. Bang my head against the wall. Everything inside of me is black and rushing forward, stopping in front of that big wad of tape. She pins me with her leg while she chains my ankles. I’m telling myself not to scream but as I struggle the handcuffs get tighter, cutting the circulation to my wrists. I keep screaming strange, muffled sounds into this tape. I can’t control myself. My mouth fills with glue. And she’s slapping me and punching me. “Stop it,” she says, reaching between my legs, squeezing hard, her other fist landing against my eye. “Stop it.” It’s like glass, like a car crash, like being held underwater.
I’m on the floor and Ambellina is on the mattress, my face between her legs when she rips the tape off my mouth. I feel the skin of her thighs. It feels warm and it feels like it is everywhere around me and I’m floating and breathing somehow in this dark pool. “Do you want me to take the blindfold off?” she asks and I whisper no. But it hardly comes out so I shake my head no and she touches my hair. I’m damp. I feel her body moving around me and the dark room. I feel safe. She says something about her child. A girl. She sounds sad but I can’t make out what she’s saying. Something about her husband and her child. She’s very sad about something."
Stephen Elliott weaves wonder with his words, never debasing Theo’s experiences with smut or sentimentality, or distilling them into tawdry melodrama, instead he crafts with careful precision, giving every scene richness and emotion. It came as little surprise to learn that this is a semi-biographical work, this is written by a soul laid bare, and I dare anyone who reads to not understand, to have empathy, to feel anger at the lives that are destroyed by a system that cannot cope. I give thanks that however difficult my life has sometimes been, it could have been much worse.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Beautifully written, meaningful and thought-provoking. A must-read for anyone who cares about the human soul....Continua