Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review: "Shine" by Lauren Myracle

For three years, Cat Robinson has kept the world at arm's length. At sixteen years old, she is haunted by the hard truths that people you've known all your life can hurt you—and that the ones who claim to love you best won’t come to rescue you.

The walls of Cat’s self-imposed prison crack when her onetime best friend is found in a coma, badly beaten and scrawled with hateful slurs. She is determined not to fail Patrick the same way her family failed her. But Cat’s search for the culprit hits a roadblock at every turn.

The small community of Black Creek, North Carolina is rocked by the attack on one of their own. Some believe that Patrick brought the attack upon himself; others pray for his salvation and swift recovery. What no one wants to believe is that someone in their midst is capable of such violence. It is so much easier to blame faceless out-of-town thugs than to accuse a neighbor or a relative; that friend, that fishing buddy, the mayor’s son.

Don’t look, don’t ask, don’t talk about it—that is the command Cat is given at every turn. For Patrick’s sake and for her own, though, she must press on. Her solo quest for justice stirs up family secrets, drug deals, and her own buried memories... everything but the answer she needs.

4 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)
 I did not expect this book to be as good as it is. I had it mentally filed as kind of general contemporary YA lit, one with easy answers and a tidy wrapup and everyone seeing the error of their ways.

But “easy” is just what Shine is not. It quickly becomes apparent that you can rarely point your finger and find a villain, as much as you may want simple answers. The book’s cast defy classification into “good” or “bad” people. Communities are complicated—especially small ones, where everyone is interconnected by blood and history. People are complicated—even those who have done wrong.

The person you are at your worst moment, scared or angry or methed-out, is not the person you will always be. At the same time, the things you said and did in that moment do not become any less true with your regret.

I did not expect such a simple-sounding premise to lead into such depth.

Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell,
another great book about rural communities
and their response to crime, only more gruesome
Shine has a lot in common with Winter’s Bone. It’s a little gentler with its characters, but not by much, which surprised me. It hits a lot of the same notes regarding drug problems in poor rural regions. They both center around the complications of investigating crime in a community so insular and tightly-knit that even “good people” hinder your investigation, because no one can afford the societal fallout if one of their own is accused. The thinking is that however bad the initial incident was, it’s over; prying into it only harms the community more.

(For the record, I loved Winter’s Bone.)

Shine is about a world too fragile to tolerate much deviation from the norm. As much as Patrick’s unashamed homosexuality is the obvious target, Cat herself is "punished" in small ways throughout the book. She is singled out for being pretty (with some snide "a girl like you can’t be too surprised when men go after you" commentary and a bonus "smile baby"); for being "too smart" for Black Creek, where her efforts to get rid of her accent are seen as snobbery; and for being "white trash" when she goes into the city while tracking leads on Patrick’s assailant. Several characters in the book are paralyzed from taking action by the internalized shame which this restrictive social code has instilled in them. Peer pressure keeps the local bullies from stepping outside of their tough-guy roles. It prevents anyone from breaking out of the drug culture.

But if the book caught my interest with its unflinching depiction of a complicated little town, it won my heart with its tenderness towards its cast. Though no one is spared suffering or the consequences of their actions, even the worst of villains is given human compassion by the narrative.

The first glimpse of this is when Cat brings a plate of dinner to her father, who is an alcoholic living in a trailer behind his own house. Where many other books would draw the expected line from alcoholic to abusive, Shine gives its heroine a father who is merely neglectful, but still caring.

He poured the syrup over his food, and I said, "That is just nasty, Daddy."

He laughed, and I could smell the corn liquor on his breath. Also the sour odor of him needing a bath. Sadness overwhelmed me: for Patrick, for Daddy, for the whole hard lot of everything.

Daddy must have picked up on it, because concern clouded his eyes. "What's wrong, sweet pea?" That was his other nickname for me. I was either a kitten or a sweet pea, each incapable of making a dent in the world's injustice.

Of course, my big smelly daddy was pretty helpless himself. I loved Daddy, but in the way I might love a loyal old dog who could no longer follow me around, just thump his tale whenever I came near.
On a purely mechanical note, the mystery of who attacked Patrick is really well spun. I didn't guess the perp until just before Cat herself did, but then--as happens when a mystery has been well laid out--it made perfect sense.

I have to mention some obvious content warnings for hate crime violence, homophobia, and drug use, as well as a much more graphic sexual assault scene than I was really prepared to expect. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Nevertheless, Shine is an extremely well-told tale that I recommend to anyone who can stomach it.

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