The Things That Always Were by Solla Carrock (a longtime online friend), has proven difficult for me to review. I promised Solla a review months and months ago. But months passed; still no review....
The Things That Always Were made me tear up multiple times. If I were being honest, I'd confess it made me cry multiple times. Reading about so much cruelty inflicted on kids, whether by birth parents, foster parents, strangers or anybody, gnaws at me. Makes me mad when it's not making me so sad. Solla Carrock is quite brilliant in this regard: navigating her novel through this childhood quagmire of confusion and polarized, highly charged emotions, with her sensitive narrator-heroine, Annie, at the helm. Courageous Annie, who despite not being the perfect little angel (she's shoplifted and run away from home repeatedly -- that's her on the book cover escaping from home yet again) does not deserve being the family scapegoat or recipient of the bulk and certainly the worst of her mentally ill mother's (Barbara) violence and psychological abuse. Barbara, however, will often -- and irrationally -- rant otherwise. Poor Annie, too young not to internalize her mother's lies, spends time she should be playing, just being a kid, thinking about how to appease her mother or how to hide instead.
Annie is surprised not being perceived as "bad" by the cop. That's just one subtle example of how Carrock mines these labyrinths of psychological dysfunction the result of parental neglect and mental illness in the consciousness of her character whose awareness of the wrongness of her abuse is slowly dawning. Carrock's handling of the quiet consequences of abuse inside the mind of a child are poignant and uncannily astute. Annie's voice is as authentic as the raging voices who brutalize her. Her suffering is conveyed as if it's matter-of-fact. It's never sensationalized or gratutious; no, it's normalized -- the way it really is in so called real life for abused kids -- and its this "normalcy" of abuse (which should be abhorrent to a parent), that adds a nuanced touch of terror to what is already horrific. The rationalizations behind the abuse are as equally authentic and blasé; so blasé it's maybe unintentionally twisted at times -- Barbara's demented reasoning in the "disciplining" of her child -- and it makes me cringe and not want to go on writing about it, reading it again. After enduring a litany of demands and double-binds in which Annie cannot possibly win; and after she is berated by an increasingly shrill and scary Barbara for not doing the dishes perfectly or just right, witness a not unusual mother-daughter moment in their kitchen:
The pressure cooker sat on a burner. She took off the lid and looked inside. "This pressure cooker is not clean. How long were you going to leave this pressure cooker on the stove dirty like this?"
"I thought it was clean," I said.
"How could you think it was clean when you're the one that washed it and left it dirty like this?" ... She banged the lid back down on the pressure cooker and twisted the lid back on. She picked up the pressure cooker by its handle and said, "Here, you wash this again," and she flung it out....
The pressure cooker hit me in the mouth...I felt my teeth breaking....
Mama said, "Now, if you've gone and made me break your teeth again, I'm going to be really angry."
Scenes like that are partly why I've had a hell of a time finishing something that could pass for a promised "review". Beyond the horror of the all-too-real and universal content of the novel, the biggest challenge I think Solla Carrock set for herself in writing The Things That Always Were, was conveying those stifled and often complexly puzzling emotions and reactions of Annie (like when she'd attempt to understand or even defend the abusive behavior of her mother) -- realities already complicated by her parent's divorce and her mother's mental illness -- within the surface context of a sweep-it-under-the-carpet ethos of the late Fifties and early Sixties who's trusted institutions of authority, be they the Holy Catholic Church, police or school, collectively turned a blind eye to obvious abuse. And then to convey all that chaos through the naturally limited point of view of an innocent girl entering a time of life in adolescence that's already bewildering enough for anybody to figure out or survive even under ideal conditions, speaks convincingly, I suspect, to Solla Carrock's introspection and intuition, and to her accomplishment, there is no doubt, that will always be The Things That Always Were.
To read published excerpts from The Things That Always Were, and to learn more about Solla Carrock's life in writing and in art, visit her wonderful website, Salty Sol Web. Solla is also the founder of Running Girl Press, through which you can purchase her novel and her novella, Eggtooth, as well as the innovative, children's learning software she's developed.