Friday, May 22, 2015
Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson
Watson takes on an important, fraught, and difficult to understand human social issue—severe child abuse—and shares it with us with an intelligence and assuredness that gives us all grace. She is as careful with us, her readers, as a mother is with an at-risk child, talking us around the issue until we feel safe enough to look at it straight in the eye. We would not gravitate to this difficult subject were we not led there by a careful and steady guide.
Watson chooses a complex narrative structure with which to tell the story and in so doing, leads us to gradually comprehend how such hideous crimes might be committed by loving parents. There is a hard-won compassion everywhere apparent for all parties in this story, but not a hint of sentimentality. It is remarkable.
A seven-year-old boy of Nigerian descent has been kicking around the foster care system for some years before he is chosen by a biracial couple for adoption. He is considered at-risk because there is some question if he was involved in a fire set at his last foster home. The story is told partly from his point of view, and partly from that of his adoptive mother. Interspersed throughout the narrative are letters written to the boy, Elijah, from his birth mother. We sense the voice of the child Elijah and that of his birth mother are imaginative reconstructions, yet they have a compelling logic. The voice of the adoptive mother is so fiercely intelligent and defended that it feels positively lived.
Watson writes fiction that doesn’t feel like fiction, and yet all the elements of great fiction are manifest. The characters are unique, complex, recognizable. The story never gets out of Watson’s grasp. Her skill in the presentation keeps us rapt to know if and how the life of a seven-year-old can be saved. We believe in the folks she introduces who spend their days (and nights) wrestling with these issues. She makes them heroes.
There are no extra pieces in this novel. Every word works to the goal of our understanding and the development of our compassion. The story of the biracial household with a really tough, almost insoluble, problem is told with a naturalness that allows us to focus on big issues like whether or not love is enough.
At a time when the importance and relevance of fiction is being questioned, along comes a writer of such skill that we cannot but put aside that challenge for another day. Kudos to Watson.
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