Monday, October 11, 2021

UNDERNEATH, brutal yet concise true-crime novel about Mother & SHELTER, psychological horror in Australia


Red Hen Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Martha Johnson wants to be a good mother and a devoted wife. It’s all she’s ever wanted in life, and she tries her very best, but when her husband threatens to leave her, her desperation reveals only one strategy that can save her family, punish her ungrateful husband, and earn power: murder.

Over a five-year period, Martha Johnson murders her four children, one by one, in order to punish her husband when they argue, but Martha is no ordinary serial killer. She murders her children by using the bulk of her 250-pound body to suffocate them. Unlike other fictionalized true-crime novels, Underneath neither valorizes nor focuses on the specific acts of violence. Instead, it attempts to understand how feelings of powerlessness, the residue of trauma, and the need to find justice in a world that refuses to give a fat body justice finds its only respite through murder.


My Review
: Disturbing story of disempowerment's most extreme and appalling cost. That it is based on a true story made me feel ill.
...I'm pretty sure this isn't purgatory, either. It's more just like, extension. Continuation. We the murdered continue on, right underneath the living, but we aren't alive anymore. We're just here: bodies, but not bodies, too. So far as I can tell, the living can't see or hear or feel or smell us, but sometimes, if I get close enough to Martha, I swear she can taste me. ... Because we were murdered, this is our punishment.

As one expects from stories published by Red Hen Press's Kate Gale, monadnock of the LA literary publishing scene for {undisclosed} years now, there is a weird and unsettling tension between the lovely language and the sheer awfulness unfolding inside those pretty phrases and unnerving images. Why should the murdered, especially these child-victims, be made to suffer punishment? Discuss amongst yourselves after reading this intensely book-clubbable book.

Incest...prostitution...child-murder...maternal child abuse...domestic violence...and told through a dead child's point of view. "Is this old man round the bend for good?" I hear y'all thinking, as you read my sentence above about the book being "intensely book-clubbable." No: I'm hoping to make it plain to you that this story is so viscerally real, so eye-wateringly honest about the actual experience of mothering for a not insignificant segment of women, that y'all bougie book clubbers could do with a corrective lens to all the saintly, rise-above-it-all, succeed succeed succeed "women's fiction" guff that gets Oprah'd and Reese'd. Please note that I am not attempting a knock on these book clubs, they are hugely popular for a reason and their choices are not all in one and only one vein...but they are very fond of a certain type of story (described above) and return to books telling it quite often. Don't fix what ain't broken.

I want people to look past the usual and see the raw edges where things have failed and fragmented in different ways. Where the fault lines that exist in much of the world go at a different angle. I include myself in this, as my periodic reviews of *shudder* poetry and *urp* YA stories demonstrate. Successful for me or not, these reads are in areas I'm hell-bent-for-leather not to ignore simply because I so very often find read. As I've said many times, I do not want to die above the neck before I die below it. So I'm out there sayin' "yes" when people offer me the damn things instead of running away like I want to...challenging my prejudices is the only way I know to prevent them from becoming part of the bone structure.

With Underneath, Author Hoang very much did that kind of challenging. We're not innocents, readers all, we've read The Lovely Bones and/or seen its movie. Dead narrators in fiction go a long, long way farther back in time than that. I'm not sure this take on the story she's telling here, a sort of slo-mo In Cold Blood, is one I'd've recommended to her. (I sure as hell wouldn't've recommended using w-bombs.) But when you're fully in the flow of the story you can see why this choice was exactly right, and possibly the only one she could have made. There was no other structure which would've enabled the Bernice-to-Martha-to-Arlene transmission of woman-violence to come clear. It needed an eyewitness whose eyes weren't in the same place they used to be. Like, Earth.

The pace of storytelling...well...I don't exactly know what to tell you. This isn't a novella, but it's not a long book. It doesn't linger on any scene. It simply is Arlene...talking to you. The story seems, in my experience of reading it, to tell itself to you in some peculiar way. Maybe the narrator being a child, who specifically says she's a child but one whose, um, existence after death keeps her learning, is so disorienting that the story becomes more of presence than she is? I can't be sure...but to me, the story was its own narrator, and it called itself Arlene. (If that makes any sense to you, could you explain it to me?) It doesn't repeat itself. It doesn't leave stuff out (for long). It's got a pull like a river's current, not dramatic but inexorable and powerful, like it won't let you go once you're there.

So go with it.

The structural facts of a novel told in discrete story-slices, layered with the sadness that floats under the surface of the ever-expanding skin of mother eating, of child growing, of marriage to a man who loves only what he needs and not what he wants bloating as its death-gases seek irregular, like the crumb structure of the best bread is. Not for Author Hoang, writing about cake...endless cakes made and eaten, made and eaten, never ever shared...the dense, regular, sweet crumbs left on an unused party-plate. The coarse and unappealing crumbs, food for scavenging ants, of hollow-sounding adulterated loafs of dollar-store bread; these make Martha's and Arlene's lines as they slip and catch and form shapes no one wants to see, just sweep into a trash can or, at best, into a crumb-catcher for possible crushing and reuse after they're fully hardened and useless as food in themselves.

There is a crisis in this world. It's a crisis of unlove. There are so many, many people in the world who are unloved. Who can't love or return love or even conceptualize it. They're incapable of it; they need it the more desperately because of that. But they don't and can't and won't get love. They are love-less. Bernice? Martha? Even, in the end, Love, you see, isn't a word or a fancy chocolate bar, or a birthday card. It's action, investment of time and emotion. And the tragedy, in the ancient sense as well as the modern, of this story is that It. Is. True.

Beautiful sentences telling a dreadful, tragic tale of love, in its absence and its perverse, incomprehensible to normies, twisted shapes. Read this and be very, very glad you are none of these people.

Read this and shudder to your bones: You are all of these people. Happy Spooktober.



Text Publishing (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Meg lives alone. Her little house in the bush outside town is the perfect place to hide. This seclusion is one of the reasons she offers to shelter Nerine, a young women escaping an abusive ex-partner. The other is that Meg knows what it’s like to live with the looming threat of a violence at the hands of someone you love.... Nerine is jumpy and her two little girls are frightened. This tells Meg all she needs to know about where they’ve come from, and she’s not all that surprised when Nerine asks her to get hold of a gun. But she knows it’s unnecessary. They’re safe now. Or so Meg thinks… Then she starts to wonder about some little things. A disturbed flyscreen. A tune playing on her windchimes. Has Nerine’s ex tracked them down? Has Meg’s husband turned up to torment her some more? By the time she finds out, it’ll be too late to do anything but run for her life.


My Review
: Remember the first time the old aphorism, "No good deed goes unpunished," held real, tangible, awful Truth for you? Strap in....

Meg is the kind of friend you hope you'll have in an emergency or crisis. She's been there, she's done what she could, realizes how important the mere fact of showing up is. She'll give you shelter, she'll offer support, she will feed you and listen to you and Be There in the psychological, supportive sense of the words.

That's because she did not get those things when she so badly needed them during her devastatingly abusive marriage.

Nerine and her two daughters are, as we're shown, in a situation where Meg, her home (which she's ever so aptly named "Bolt Hole"), and her way with others are just exactly what they need. In they come; settle they do not. Nerine is in constant motion, constantly talking taking talking about how horrible the girls' father is (right in front of their scared little faces), how bad their lives were, how the courts have...insanely, incomprehensibly...given this vile predatory abuser visitation rights! Can you even imagine! she asks Meg, never waiting for an answer.

Then the nightmare turns real...awful things having been said, there are suddenly weird and unnerving things happening...frightening but, as yet, not violent things...footprints and noises where and when they shouldn't be, and all the time Nerine's talk talk talk about the horrors of the past makes little Analiese and Collette, her very young daughters, scared and jumpy. Meg, a grown woman with an estranged daughter living in England (can't forgive Mum for staying with the awful narcissistic personality disorder-having Dad), empathizes with all three, tries her best to distract and entertain the girls with rural life's many pleasures. Nerine? Nothing changes her focus. She is wound way too tight, experiences all things as threats and blames everything on the violent, awful ex who will, it comes to seem, jump down from a tree onto them with a machete!

As the unnerving stuff escalates into actual violence (CONTENT WARNING: ANIMAL CRUELTY), Meg begins to piece together some very, very strange facts and comes up with a truly frightening picture.

As I read the story, I was genuinely unsettled and disturbed. I can't say I expected the twist, having thought from the get-go there was going to be one. What it was, however, surprised me. Author Jinks deserves big ups for her unnerving choice of an ending. It was not what I'd thought it would be, and made the story that much more appealing to me.

Animal cruelty cost the book a star. I understood why Author Jinks made that choice, and I wasn't inclined to put the book down for good because of it, but it was dreadful and I warn my more sensitive readers (Kathy!) not to consider this tale for their own shelves.

The topic of incest and the crime of rape are factors in this story. They are hot buttons for many. I will say that Auhtor Jinks does not sensationalize them. They aren't dwelt on with ghoulish and repugnant "look! LOOK at how AWFUL men are!" glee. They are presented as facts, and as crimes; they are part of the women's experiences, and are told to us, the readers, as such.

I quite liked the pace set by Author Jinks. We're not in a hurry to get where we're going; there are interesting side characters and the land itself is a character of a sort. That, from my point of view, set the stakes effectively high for Meg, and for the reader. Anything that disrupts this lovely woman's Bolt Hole is a Bad Thing. And boy oh boy, the bad thing is very, very bad indeed. As Spooktober reads go, I think this one is as scary and as nightmarish as they come. Perfect for y'all ghoulies looking for a safe place to be wound up and scared witless!

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