I’m going to be completely honest here – this is the story of an incestuous relationship between a brother and his sister. No mistaken identities. No separated-at-birth. Following the examples set by Jaime and Cersei, the main pairing is (for lack of a better term) highly disturbing… and after reading the book, I was surprised to learn that it was completely worth the hype.
Seventeen-year-old Lochan and sixteen-year-old Maya have always felt more like friends than siblings. Together they have stepped in for their alcoholic, wayward mother to take care of their three younger siblings. As defacto parents to the little ones, Lochan and Maya have had to grow up fast. And the stress of their lives–and the way they understand each other so completely–has also also brought them closer than two siblings would ordinarily be. So close, in fact, that they have fallen in love.
Their clandestine romance quickly blooms into deep, desperate love. They know their relationship is wrong and cannot possibly continue. And yet, they cannot stop what feels so incredibly right. As the novel careens toward an explosive and shocking finale, only one thing is certain: a love this devastating has no happy ending.
First of all, there’s Lochan. Instead of going out with friends or getting drunk at house parties, he spends his nights at home with the children. It’s easy to forget that he’s seventeen years old, and just a kid himself. This adds to the tragedy of his story, a boy who places family above everything else, even his own health and well-being. While Lochan is confident around his family members, he can barely speak to his classmates. Suzuma’s treatment of mental disorders was well-researched. I could easily relate to his descriptions of anxiety, giving his character a storyline beyond the ‘ew-incest‘ moments.
On the other hand, I felt like the characterization of Maya was weak at times. Lochan’s narrative gave him an extra layer of complexity, with his anxiety struggles and feelings of worthlessness, but I barely knew anything about Maya. Suzuma had the perfect opportunity to develop her relationships outside the house, yet she elected to let Maya’s life revolve around her brother instead, with cheesy lines such as “my love”. Dude, no.
Even Kit (aged 13) was going through his own problems. He was old enough to remember his father, who abandoned them for a new life in Australia, and it was only natural that he would rebel against Lochan’s authority. I found it shocking that he would stay out late and turn to drugs for comfort, but the conflict with his older brother brought realism to the story which a lot of people could relate to.
Suzuma presented the mother as a crass and irresponsible woman, who didn’t seem to care about her children, who spent money on shoes and booze instead of feeding them, and who abandoned them to spend time with her boyfriend. It was particularly tragic for the children, especially Tiffin (aged 9) and Willa (aged 5), who still looked up to her despite her parental failures.
I know what you’re thinking – it’s weird, right?
I couldn’t support this bizarre pairing either, but I was drawn to their story – two children, neglected by their alcoholic mother and deadbeat father, seeking solace within each other. Even without the incest, this had the potential to become a great book.
For me, Lochan and Maya’s relationship seemed better suited as brother and sister from the start. No matter how much they tried to convince themselves otherwise, they were siblings. Flesh and blood. I tried to approach the situation with an open mind, but I felt so uncomfortable that I almost stopped reading altogether (yes, I’m talking about the awkward sex scenes).
But I have to admire Tabitha Suzuma for choosing to go there. Not many authors would elect to approach such a delicate topic, and she wrote this book with a great level of maturity.
The Mental Illness
At home, Lochan was the superhero – looking after the kids, cooking their meals and helping out with homework. But at school, he was simply known as the ‘weird kid’, the one who spent lunchtimes alone and avoided social contact. It became evident that this was more than being cripplingly shy, but rather a mental illness that wasn’t being taken seriously. This shows the public reaction to mental disorders, that perhaps he was just overreacting. But to Lochan and Suzuma, it was all too real.
Many representations of mental illness in the media seem to be treated almost immediately after diagnosis. Lochan tried to deal with his issues one step at a time and it was a great struggle for him, which made it seem more authentic. What I enjoyed about this book was that social anxiety was being used as an underlying problem throughout, one which doesn’t come with a quick fix.
With Kit heading off to a school trip, and the kids going to a sleepover, Lochan and Maya are finally alone together. They decide to consummate their relationship, but their mother catches them in the act. Horrified at what she witnesses, she assumes that Lochan was trying to rape his sister and calls the police. Lochan explains that if they were charged with an incestuous relationship, then both would be sent to jail, and the kids would be taken away by Social Services. He makes Maya promise that she’d tell the police it was his idea, that he’d been sexually abusing her the whole time.
While the police are interrogating him, he admits that he forced Maya to comply. But Maya changes her statement last minute, and tells the truth instead. Lochan is forced to take drastic action to keep his family from being torn apart, and ends up committing suicide. In the final chapter, Maya and the kids attend his funeral. She plans to kill herself later that night, but ultimately decides to continue living for her brother.
The ending is bittersweet, yet perfect for such a depressing book.
“At the end of the day that’s what we’re all trying to do: fit in, one way or another, desperately trying to pretend we’re all the same.”
“They say when you really love someone, you should be willing to set them free. So that is what I am doing. I will step back and you will move on. I will let you go. … Your happiness means everything to me. I will listen for your voice in the distance. I will look at the moon. I will keep you in my pocket. I will carry your smile with me everywhere, like a warm and comforting glow.”