Thursday, 18 January 2018

Book 2 - 2018 The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

This book has two parallel threads - the story of the murder of a small boy by a pedophile neighbour - or rather the story of the pedophile himself - and the memoir of the author, who herself was sexually abused by her grandfather. I don't actually know how I came by this book, as its subject matter is not something I would have chosen; I'm guessing it was a present or left behind by someone who had been given it and couldn't face the subject matter. Anyway, despite the unpromising and far from appetising content, the narrative is quite gripping, even though finally not quite a success.

Despite Marzano-Lesnevich's best efforts to persuade us otherwise, there isn't really any strong link connecting the two threads of the book's narrative, beyond the fact that she is involved with both. The thing that sparks her interest in the murder element of the story is that, while training to be a lawyer and believing herself opposed to the death penalty, she comes across the case of the boy's murder and realises that, perhaps because of her own experience as a victim of sexual abuse, her instinctive reaction is that she does want the murderer to be given the death penalty.

She then abandons law school and pursues the story of the murder and the murderer instead. It comes to dominate her attention - and the story of the murderer's conception and life is truly remarkable and at times what I suppose might be called gothic. Placed beside it, the story of the author's family life is less interesting, perhaps partly because the author is unable really to get any insight into the various strange elements of her parents' behaviour, being possibly too close to be able to gain a clear perspective. However, the thing that is conveyed well, even if not entirely intentionally, is the damage sexual abuse causes, the way in which Marzano-Lesnevich is dragging this weighty pain around her, caused by a betrayal of trust at the heart of the family, the place where all children ought to feel safe.

Marzano-Lesnevich writes very well; it is the book's structure that does not work. There are hints early in the book that her family and that of the murderer are directly connected, which meant that I kept expecting some amazing coincidence to be produced - the murderer having been a classmate of hers or her siblings, or having mowed their lawns or been her grandmother's unknown bastard child. This would have justified the braided narrative. It becomes clear eventually that there is no amazing coincidence, that the connection is nothing more than the fact of the author's own abuse and her reaction to the possibility of a death penalty for a pedophilic murderer. She hopes, I suspect, to cast light back and forth between the two elements of the text, producing an insight into the phenomenon of sexual abuse from this juxtaposition. However, by the book's conclusion, sexual abuse remains as mysterious as ever, and her attempts to draw parallels where there are none - or only very tenuous ones - just become laboured.

I'm not sure if I regret reading this book. I feel slightly polluted by having thought about the various pedophilic acts described within its pages, but I suppose one ought not to hide one's eyes from reality. The vignettes Marzano-Lesnevich gives us of the crusading anti-death-penalty lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith are interesting and reinforce my suspicion that he is not without flaws. An examination of the philosophic arguments for and against the death penalty is not really forthcoming in this volume, which I found disappointing. But it was not a dull read and, although this achievement is often underrated, I think it is harder to beguile readers to keep going than many people realise and, if a writer has the gift for it, they should be saluted.

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