Review written & published on www.criticalwrit.comTrigger warnings for off-page child abuse & pedophilia, lesbophobia, victim blaming and abuse enabling.
There are some books you just know are going to grip your heart the whole time you read them. There’s not many subjects that produce such strong emotions in me as much as victim blaming and abuse do, and this book immediately brought to mind the Jacqueline Sauvage case and the big headlines it had made here in France. Jacqueline was tried and sentenced earlier this year to ten years of prison for the murder of her husband after 47 years of abuse and the rape of her children. The story had brought the vilest and most disgusting victim blaming to the surface and it still stands as one of the most terrifying example of the utter failure of our justice & social systems.
Rhea Daniels has a similar story : she murdered her father after years and years of abuse, and she paid for it with fifteen long years of jail when everyone turned against her. She arrives back to her family’s farm— not quite home anymore— after her term, and she knows she has no place here. Her mother hates her, nobody in town believes her, and everyone thinks she’s a disgusting murderer. When her probation worker gets her a job in another town, she takes her chance at a new beginning away from her past. Morgan Scott, her new boss, doesn’t really like her at first. She’s a very private woman, and she thinks she knows Rhea's type— a murderer. A troublemaker. It takes work, but they soon learn to trust each other, and when both of them are targeted by an unknown assailant with a grudge, they’ll have to work together even if it takes facing their worst fears, because who would believe an ex-con?
It's impossible not to feel for Rhea— she has an utterly gut wrenching story. She was abused most of her childhood, and she’d learn to pretend that every thing was alright— all while silently counting the days until her freedom. But one day, when she was 18, she was faced with an impossible choice, one that would bring pain and disaster either way, and one that had no good option. Her choice cost her dearly : fifteen long years of jail, when everyone she knew turned against her and called her a liar. I cannot imagine what it must do to somebody to be wrenched away from childhood like this, and then sequestered in jail during the most important part of one’s life. Donna K. Ford uses her experience of abuse both as a counselor and a victim; she knows what abuse does to the mind. Rhea’s story brings every emotion to mind: anger, bitterness, fear, pity, desire to act against abuse. She’s a survivor— mistrustful, unsure, ignorant of a world that moved without her for half of her life, and her prison years taught her not to back down and to fight for her place... But at the same time she's still a child, vulnerable and with wonder in her eyes.
Morgan isn't without her own baggage either. She’s an ex-priest, expelled from the church when she had a relationship with another woman. That relationship ended the worst way it could have, and she’s still filled with guilt about it. She has a certain religious naiveté to her. In her world, there’s a clear line between right and wrong, and ex-cons like Rhea are often more in the wrong than in the right. Her relationship with Rhea, and the experiences they face together, will change them— will make them grow.
One particular and almost omnipresent element of the book is how claustrophobic and oppressive the setting feels. We know from the beginning that most people would rather hang than forget Rhea for what she’s done, because nobody believes that a "good man" like her father would be a pedophile rapist. And we know that homophobia runs rampant too, if Morgan’s fall from grace and the behavior of some of the town residents is any indication. Friendly secondary characters are very rare, and the police officers don’t hide their prejudice and hostility against Rhea. The threat they face is introduced later in the book, and its slow escalation in violence gears the book towards a gripping settling of scores.
This is not, however, a mystery novel. There aren’t a lot of possible suspects for our villain, and our main characters can do little more than stand their ground against the onslaught. Taking a step back, I felt that particular element of the novel could have used a little more work. The plot is somewhat predictable, and while the ending is suitably climactic in intensity, I felt our villain was… not very smart, to say the least. But it’s a minor issue, and while the setting of the ending is a classic of such fiction, the way both our characters handle it is powerful and perhaps a bit unusual. Holy Batwoman Morgan, you’re an complete badass when you put your heart to it.
This is Donna K. Ford’s third novel, and the first one I've read from her. While reviews for her previous works were a mixed bag, this particular book is to me a solid romance with thriller elements, and I’m certainly looking forward for what she’ll write in the future.