Contemporary realistic fiction is not my usual fare in literary reading. I am more your fantasy, magical realism, gothic-horror kind of girl. There was something, however, about Salvage that captured my interest. Plus the fact that it’s a perfect book to feature for our current reading theme.
Glossy Sheen of Perfection and a Ripped Apart Fragment of a Boy. This may be the perfect way to describe 16 year old Cass Montgomery and her birth half-brother 18 year old Aidan Jones. Cass was adopted by a fairly-wealthy and influential family, with her adoptive father being a government minister, and her mother the perfect MP’s wife who performs all social obligations in the community with ease, grace, and impeccable charm. Cass has a younger brother who was born to her adoptive parents soon after she was adopted, 11 year old Ben, who has trouble making friends, and who seems to be suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Cass also noted how much her adoptive parents have influenced her way of being:
In my opinion, nurture wins out. What did I inherit from my birth parents? Freckles and red hair. What did I get from Mum and Dad? A whole long list of stuff, everything from religion (C of E), politics, education, aspirations, the way I speak, the way I write, the way I cope with stuff: I put on a brave face and I get on with life. (p. 10)
While Cass is preparing herself for a certain acceptance at Oxford University, Aidan Jones, on the other hand, lived a very different life, and is looking forward to a less-than-ideal future. He grew up in the care system, was shuffled from one foster home to the next, experienced physical abuse since he was a child, and suffered from countless emotional scars that would rightfully earn him the label ‘damaged goods.’ It seemed quite fitting that he works for a junk shop that saves random stuff from fires and floods and ‘salvages’ them for other people’s use.
Aidan found Cass through a newspaper article which discusses in gory details the events of Cass’ adoptive parents’ separation. The respected MP has gotten his young and attractive assistant pregnant and while cliché, this kind of family drama is what the paparazzi lives for – fodder for small-minded gossip and scandal. The entire family’s photos are all over the papers, allowing Aidan to find his long-lost younger sister through Facebook. While this is not the ‘usual’ path as advised by social workers, Cass feels that her once-perfect world is unraveling with her father’s infidelity, making her question things that have always seemed so matter-of-fact, making her vulnerable and open to meeting a birth-brother who is technically a stranger to her.
Piercing Voices and Multi-layered Issues. The novel is written in two voices: Aidan’s and Cass’. It is interesting to see the same event viewed so differently by the siblings who could not be so different from each other. Yet despite the fact that their worlds are vastly different from each other, they are unmistakably drawn to each other – there is a search for answers, to find meaning, to find puzzle pieces that would tell them who they are and who they are meant to be.
There are also many other things going on in the novel. There is the incredibly attractive dark-skinned Will Hughes who seems intent on making the Ice Queen, Cass, feel something for him through their experimental non-relationship. While race was depicted as a non-issue in the narrative, there were traces that would seep through, especially when Cass became worried that Will might think the reason why she wants to keep their affair a secret is beause she was embarassed to be seen with him. I like how Will was very patient with Cass’ indecisiveness, how he never took advantage of her vulnerability even when he could and had the perfect opportunity to do so, and how he was very protective yet flippant, cock-sure and confident yet also very affectionate and caring all at once.
There is also Aidan’s being of mixed-parentage, his father described as a soldier who died in service in Kosovo. He also seems to be suffering from dyslexia. While his sister’s academic skills can only be described as stellar, Aidan can barely spell, much less read and understand long text, which makes it difficult for him to pass his driving test, and also makes it hard for him to seek much-needed assistance on occasion:
I’d sat there for a bit looking through the handbook the council gave me when I left care, looking for a page which told you who to call in a night-time emergency. There were pages about claiming benefits and what to do when you got into trouble with the police. Details of religious holidays. A list of words you might not know the meaning of. Words like correspondence, solicitor and subsistence. Pathway plan, amenity, eligible, accountable. Entitlements, eligibility and fundamental. Martyrdom. Words to tie you up in knots and keep you prisoner. Useless words. Scary words.
My head was spinning and the words were dancing. (p. 158)
Aidan also gets by through alcohol, which makes his situation even worse. He drowns his pain and frustration in pubs and would often arrive home dead-drunk, his anguish and confusion numbed by alcohol. Then there is Aidan’s best friend, Rich, who regularly cuts himself and who also seemed damaged beyond repair. While his story arc was not given much space in the narrative, it appears that he’s gay, and that he was able to find his one great love towards the end of the narrative. How it all ends though remains to be seen.
Then there is Holly, five years older than Aidan, but who loves him beyond thought nonetheless. A single parent, she has also gone from one bad boy to the next, and has experienced being beaten up senseless. She could have had a bright future, but some of her life choices has led her to being with Aidan which turned out to be both their salvation.
Then there is the tragedy that made Aidan feel worthy of pain, punishment, and rejection even by his own mother.
Road to Redemption. This is a book that would literally keep you turning the pages. The voices are real and piercing, and provides one with a picture of what it’s like to be caught up in a government system of care, no matter how well-intentioned, well-funded, and well-meaning. My heart went out to Aidan who is so used to being rejected, that he feels every kind of happiness that he experiences could only be short-lived. He is constantly hypervigilant, waiting for the next shoe to fall, providing further proof of his being unworthy. I could also empathize with Cass who feels a constant desire to be perfect. I like how she protects herself from pain despite the fact that she could come off as standoffish and cold.
This novel indeed gives voice to the silenced. There is pain here, gritty and raw, the kind that you would like to avert your head from, yet nonetheless real. There is also hope as tattooed in the back of Aidan’s neck. Hope for these fragile things, redemption for these broken pieces, and the constant gasping for air, until one realizes that breathing is a gift, a constant, immutable part of one’s existence. As I was writing this novel, I thought of this song. Enjoy.
Salvage by Keren David. Published by Atom Books, 2014. Review Copy provided by Pansing Books for a candid review of the novel.