I’m going to spoil the book right now, kind of. But since it came out in 1991 and it’s not very well-known or sought after, and no one reads this anyways, I’m sure no one cares. But you never know, so there’s the warning.
In The Sweet Hereafter, there is a chapter about an accident survivor, Nichole, and her child sexual abuse by her father. And what intrigued me about this was the honesty in which it is dealt with.
So often, novels have a kind of overly-dramatic twist where the child is either overly frank about their abuse, or overly dramatic. The action is often overwrought and for me, unrelatable. I find that so often, authors have a hard time dealing or grappling with this particular sensitive subject more than others, because it’s still taboo and they try to cover new ground when new ground isn’t necessarily needed. What Russell Banks does so well in The Sweet Hereafter is finds a balance between a girl’s struggle to love her father in spite of his atrocities, while at the same time, hating him because of them. This tug of war kind of mirrors the lawyer character’s struggle to love his daughter despite her lying, drug addiction and asking him for money. Though I’m not schooled enough (or, in the summer after graduating after a long term of non-stop writing, reading, viewing and huge academic papers, diligent enough) to find a reason for the connection, that it’s there tells me a lot about the power relations between parents and children, and the ways in which we love people who hurt us, despite that they hurt us and we know that they hurt us. There is this wonderful musing from Nichole in The Sweet Hereafter after she is in a wheelchair when she states that her father won’t look at her or touch her anymore, and she feels this is because he doesn’t see her as pretty anymore. It is a small statement, but a damaging one because abuse victims feel this pull so often; the ways in which they glean confidence from their surroundings are skewed drastically and they find very odd, often discouraging ways to get it and often this comes from their abuser, who holds power over their confidence as well as their physicality.
A book like this that isn’t about abuse at all demonstrates through little subtleties like the aforementioned, that it has multi-textual layers of meaning and life that I really appreciated. I wouldn’t say it’s the best book I’ve ever read, but the unexpected inclusion of childhood sexual abuse and the VERY unexpected approach to the issue that is realistic, sensitive and grounded yet powerful and true, really validated for me, Russell Banks’ skill as a storyteller and humanist.