Wednesday 26 August 2009
The Girl Next Door (Book)
This was one of the harder books I've read. Not because of the writing, but because the content is so, I don't know. Objectionable? Horrifying? I can't think of a suitable word to sum up my emotional reaction to the story. Normally I rate the books I read on a sliding scale from "god awful" to "goddamn brilliant". But to call The Girl Next Door "good" seems kind of disingenuous to me. Don't get me wrong, it is good, but not in an emotionally fulfilling kind of way. Good, in an unrelenting emotionally tormenting way.
It is the late fifties and David is twelve years old. He's best friends with Donny Chandler, who lives next door, and spends most of his summer days hanging out with Donny and his brothers. Then recently orphaned Meg and Susan arrive on the block and move in with Donny's family. Ruth, Donny's mother, doesn't take to Meg and seems to resent having to care for her and her crippled sister. Over the course of the summer, Ruth's treatment of Meg and Susan grows ever more abusive but David is either incapable of or unwilling to make any moral judgements. Eventually, Ruth coerces her sons to participate in Meg's humiliation and soon most of the boys on the block are taking turns raining abuses on Meg. David passively watches the horrors unfold in the Chandler's basement until he is finally polarized into action.
The story leans heavily on themes of sex, gender, and authority. David, the book's narrator, is just a boy, but he experiences a sexual awakening--brought on by Meg's arrival--and he muses on his newfound sexual desires and curiosities. David's friends, too, are aroused by Meg and as the abuse escalates, it grows increasingly sexual in nature. Most of the atrocities are overseen and directed by Ruth. Ruth is the single mother of three boys and though she's a natural authority figure, she's also the cool mom and the neighbourhood boys follow her without question. Ruth's abuse--or better yet, perversion--of her power and authority over her sons gives depth to the abuse hurled at Meg.
In addition to being depraved, Ruth is also self-loathing and unstable. Though her mental degradation is painfully obvious to the reader, David has no frame of reference or way of understanding what's happening to Ruth. This kind of narrative irony makes the book that much more difficult. A pall of moral ambiguity hangs over the characters, and their judgement is clouded by confusion in David's case, sociopathy in the case of the Chandler boys, and mental illness in the case of Ruth.
It should be noted these are not meant to be taken as excuses. In spite of the fact that there is little closure to the story (which again makes the whole thing hard to digest), Ketchum is careful to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of everyone involved, including David. As David wrestles with the injustice of it all, so too does the reader and it is here, at the very end of the text, where the two finally meet on common moral ground. Interestingly, that meeting takes place in one final act of violence.
The book's unrelenting pace and description of the abuse heaped upon Meg should in no way be interpreted as commentary on desensitization toward violence. Rather, David and his friends simply don't understand that what they're doing is wrong. Set in the suburbs with the backdrop of post-war conformity and civility, the events depicted are all the more terrible because modern readers understand that mid-century America was a different place where abused women and children had little or no recourse to the law. At one point in the story Meg herself approaches the police but they fail to help and protect her from harm. The officer involved returns later on, but only at the behest of David's father, and his intervention comes much too late.
To be fair, the only reason I picked up this book was to prepare myself for the movie. I don't normally do this kind of thing--reading the book before seeing the film--but I was intrigued by the "true" nature of the story, and an article detailing the movie's release made reference to the book as one of the more horrifying reads of recent years. I'm only slowly getting back into reading a lot of horror, and I was never much into this kind of human-on-human subgenre, so I can't comment on how The Girl Next Door stacks up against other similar types. What I can say is that, in spite of my mixed feelings about the book's quality, I'm glad I read it all the way to the end.