There comes a time when you know, during your reading of a book, that it is going to have a profound effect on you, in terms of its engaging writing and also the message it delivers. Certain books spring to mind from my reading, classics such as: In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and The War Zone by Alexander Stuart. Slights by Kaaron Warren can be added to this list.
As an admirer of Warren’s prose for some time now, especially her collection, The Grinding House (Australian title, renamed with additional stories in the US, as The Glass Woman.), I was sure that this book would impress me, yet even with such high expectations, the book didn’t stand a chance of disappointing.
Slights is a first person narrative, seen through the eyes of Stevie Garland, a misfit, who loses her father early in life, suffers yet another major trauma when she and her mother are involved in a car accident, resulting in her mother’s death and her entering ‘the room’, a place where the people she has ‘slighted’ in life come to exact some sort of revenge on her. She is naturally disturbed by this room and vows not to slight anyone ever again upon her release from hospital. It is a vow she will make (and break) several times in the novel.
After the accident the book follows Stevie over a period of years, in which she retreats further away from the people who care about her and becomes more curious about death and what people see when they die. This is helped by her employment at a hospice.
The characters that play the biggest role in Stevie’s life are her brother, Peter, married to Maria, who Stevie can’t stand, Dougie Page, friend of the family, who worked with Stevie’s dad and Alex, Stevie’s dead father.
Stevie engages in hero-worship of her father and refuses to talk to any that speak ill of him (her uncle Dom, aunt Ruth etc.). She hangs up on Dougie Page more than once, when he tries to explain why it was that Alex died in the line of duty, supposedly protecting the innocents.
They are truths Stevie cannot and will not face.
She and her brother Peter have a classic brother/sister relationship, complete with scars and a history of hurt intertwined with love. Neither of them seem well equipped to deal with the other and this causes pain and confusion throughout the narrative, not helped by the friction between Stevie and Maria, Peter’s wife.
Stevie’s obsession with ‘the room’ becomes too much for her and she becomes more and more problematic in ‘normal’ society, seeking answers from people who have not the capability to answer them.
As the years pass and the fascination and dread grow, more information is brought to light about Alex, first from Dougie Page, followed by Peter and finally by aunt Jessie, who has craftily hidden stories of Alex’s life in the margins of classic books, during her time at the library.
The characterisation and interaction between the different characters in this story is an honest representation of what it is to be flawed, to not fit into this society of ours. Warren picks out traits many of us share and grinds them into one thick paste of loneliness, tragedy, betrayal and ultimately murder.
There is also Warren’s prose, which manages that difficult bridge between elegant and engaging with relative ease. For while it is easy to see that this is a story that has been crafted and that the words have been meticulously examined to prove their worth, in no way does this slow down the novel or make it confusing to the reader, rather it is fresh and vibrant and matches the rather chaotic nature of its protagonist.
As mentioned earlier, Slights, is one of those books that reaches into your core and takes something from you, whilst ultimately leaving something you really aren’t sure you wanted to be left with.
Ellen Datlow states that Kaaron Warren must be read and I cannot and would not want to disagree with this sentiment. It is as simple as that.