Swati Avasthi's Split

This post is part of a series of reviews of Swati Avasthi's debut young adult novel Split organized by Deepa D. via circulating advanced reader's copies. If you are interested in reading this book to review on your blog, please follow the link to Deepa's page and drop a note there!

I'm glad stephenhongsohn is posting on Asian American literary texts that more clearly fit within the rubric of "Asian American literature" because apparently I've forgotten how to do that. (Note to all the lurkers on this community, too--please post your own reviews, comments, or questions!) My posts lately have tended towards books by non-Asian American writers who write Asian American characters or, as with this post, books by Asian American writers that are not focused on Asian American characters, histories, themes, aesthetics, or other aspects of literature recognized in the field of study. Nevertheless, I do think there is a lot to be said for this burgeoning body of work by Asian American writers that refuse to accede to the usual tropes of Asian American fiction. But I'll save more of this category-questioning line of thought for some other day....

Avasthi's debut offers the first-person point of view of Jace Witherspoon, a blond-haired sixteen-year-old from Chicago who arrives unannounced at the doorstep of his older brother's apartment in Albuquerque. As the story unfolds, we discover that Jace has left his parents after physically fighting back against his abusive father. His older brother Christian had run away from home five years earlier after putting up with the same abuse for many years. The novel spans a few months between Jace's arrival and the moment when he expects his mother also to make her escape from Chicago. The two brothers work to fit each other back into their lives, and in the process, they try to unlearn the kind of relationship that their father's abuse has taught them to form with everyone--layered with lies, anger, violence, and secrets.

The novel offers a compelling psychological portrait of a boy coming of age after a childhood in an abusive home. Though the story folds in a lot of discussion about what abused children experience and how they deal as young adults with the traumatic past, it does not ever get bogged down in social-work or psychology kinds of discourse. Instead, the novel presents some of these ideas in a tight narrative, propelled in short chapters through Jace's present and past (in flashbacks to moments of violence). I think most important, the novel does not offer a pretty portrait of victimization nor of the possibilities of full escape, either physically and mentally. As a young adult novel, its focus on Jace's perspective rather than on that of the mother--the battered woman--is also significant, exploring how abusive men affect their families in such profound ways.

What I find especially interesting about this book is its exploration of a range of types of relationships--father/son, mother/son, husband/wife, brother/brother, boyfriend/girlfriend, and platonic friends. At the heart of these depictions of relationships is a sense of what it means to be in a non-abusive relationship, to be fully invested in another person in ways that are not bound up in violence and guilt (both physical and psychological pain). This point is crucial for me because I've been noting often lately that television media and the movies seem so saturated in representations of abusive relationships--both as cautionary tale and as entertainment--that I can't help but feel that we are all becoming inured to what it means to witness, experience, and perpetrate abuse. The example I bring up often with friends is that of the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay in his shows--particularly in the reality competition show Hell's Kitchen in which aspiring chefs compete with each other to manage one of Ramsay's restaurants. That show is so horrible in my mind (yet I often find myself getting sucked into the episodes--it's like watching an accident happen) because it models abusive behavior as appropriate boss or other authority figure behavior. If you haven't seen the show, you can find clips on YouTube where you see him shouting at the contestants and demeaning them. At times, he even gets physically violent, smashing pots and pans (though not any people, to my knowledge). And of course I know that this show is all about the horribleness of his behavior, but at the end of the day, to yoke entertainment to the image of such a man who is ultimately in charge is really disturbing. I find it especially shocking that Ramsay and the show demand that the contestants treat him like a respectable boss and leader, that they must say, "Yes, Chef," in a cowering manner to whatever invectives he throws their way. The show is built around how the contestants must accede to his tantrums and criticism and to accept it all as his way of trying to make them better chefs (and people). Disturbing.

Okay, so what I wanted to point out with that digression is simply that models of abusive relationships are really quite prevalent, especially in uncritical forms. Avasthi's novel is brilliant because it delves into the psychology of Jace as a son who endures his father's abuse for years, exploring how difficult it is for Jace to form non-abusive relationships with others or to behave in ways that are not re-enactments of his father's behavior.

The young adult genre works especially well in this story. Jace's voice, while far wiser and more literate than his age would suggest, is so nuanced and full of contradiction that he comes across as such a rounded character. I wonder sometimes if the coming-of-age narrative is shifting more and more to the "young adult" genre. If so, I think it's a good thing since YA literature seems more willing to take on some pretty serious topics (like abusive families) in a matter-of-fact manner. I also appreciated how this novel presented teenage relationships without moralizing comments about sex but especially because the relationships seem full of confusion as first relationships can be.

There is one character in the novel who is marked explicitly as Asian/American--Christian's girlfriend, a former social worker turned high school English teacher (because she couldn't detach herself from work enough not to be devastated by all the broken children she met) named Mirriam Ngu. As a character, she is the voice of sympathy and reason that helps the brothers muddle their way towards healthier relationships.

I'll end this rambling review with a comment on the cover image, which I find quite fascinating. Keys do appear as an important object in the novel, and thus their presence on the cover is fitting. It wasn't until I pulled up the cover image online that I noticed the two faces in profile, though, and that aspect of the image is quite stunning. Like the classic wine-goblet-and-faces image, these keys require a perceptual shift in order to move from the black keys to the red faces. Yet, the keys and the faces are still ultimately mutually-constitutive--their edges and lines define each other. In a similar fashion, the novel explores the difficulties of Jace's coming to terms with the fact that his life has been determined by his father's abuse, even as he does not want to grow up to be like his father nor to remain stuck in the position of a victim to another's abuse. The power of the novel is in emphasizing that there is no easy solution, that no matter what happens with Jace, he will always be in tension with that past as something that has defined who he is.
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thanks for the detailed review!

i'm still confused about the whole YA genre; what makes a book YA versus just A? we have all these taxonomic configurations already, but i wonder how YA marketing works... it seems there are a ton of Asian American writers who have pushed out YA novels and i've completely missed the bandwagon on that (same with the children's lit stuff)... i'll have to "expand" my lenses at some point...

that's why i want spark* to read this book and blog about it! she's always trying to get more people to study asian american children's and young adult literature. my sense is that there is definitely a marketing aspect to YA lit. but from my limited reading in the genre, there also seems to be a huge focus on protagonists in their tween to teenage years, often in first-person point-of-view. and for me, one particular quality that i associate with YA lit is its centering of a younger person's perspective (rather than offering a more knowledgeable narrative perspective). i thought patti kim's a cab called reliable read like YA, for example, because though the narrator is past her childhood/teen years when she tells her story, there is that dwelling on those particular moments of one's life and an attempt to inhabit that mindset (rather than more self-consciousness narrating from a later perspective). i can't quite articulate the difference very well, but i do think there is a particular perspective or even aesthetic that is growing out of the YA label, and it does seem to be in contrast to (or maybe even supplanting) coming-of-age narratives in more standard novels. anyways, there is definitely work to be done in studying the outpouring! plenty of fodder for someone's dissertation...
also: one other thing, thanks for the reminders re: posting and commenting... it's nice to know that you know someone is reading a review sometimes LOL
Yes, one of the greatest aspects about personal blogging sites like LiveJournal is the comments feature. Honestly, though, as someone who is and has been involved with many communities and aspects of LJ for six years, I've learned that LJ etiquette pretty much goes as follows: people comment to people who comment to their entries, and they comment to people who comment back to their own comments. Pretty much, you get what you give out, stephenhongsohn. Those of us who do not reply to the comments we receive, or have received in the past, should not complain about their lack of comments now. LOL.
ooooo play nice, boys and girls! :O but yeah, commenting often is quite a closed circuit. wish it weren't, though. i should check my comments more often. i often don't notice comments for months myself!
i don't think he was complaining about not getting comments, rather that he was aware of the fact that he should be commenting more...

I disagree re: thanks for the reminders re: posting and commenting...it's nice to know that you know someone is reading a review sometimes LOL since his reviews are usually the ones without comments. We usually comment to each other, and we all did originally and regularly comment to his first few reviews too.