CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 41. . . .June 22, 2016
The Pain Eater.
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2016.
243 pp., trade pbk., $12.95.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Dave Jenkinson.
On a Thursday evening in late March, fourteen-year-old Maddy Malone was raped by three boys in a copse of aspen, while coming home from a performance of Our Town at her high school. An additional two boys were present at the incident - one held her down by the shoulders as the others raped her, and the second stood an uneasy lookout at the edge of the copse. All five were wearing masks. They had also been at the play; in celebration of a Best Production win at a regional high school drama festival, cheap plastic masks had been handed out at intermission, along with instructions to don them at the end of the performance as a surprise for the cast. They were simple white faces, half of them smiling and half of them grieving, in imitation of the traditional Greek comedy and tragedy masks. All five boys had been sitting together on the side of the auditorium where the smiling masks had been handed out; Maddy had been seated opposite, and so had received a mask of tragic proportions.
Beth Goobie has a well-deserved reputation for writing honest, hard-hitting teen fiction, including books like The Dream Where the Losers Go, The Lottery and The Throne. The Pain Eater continues in the same forthright and uncompromising vein.
The novel opens with a three-page “prologue”, the opening sentence of which (see “excerpt” above) makes clear what the novel’s central focus will be – Maddy Malone’s response to being raped. When readers next encounter Maddy in the book’s opening chapter, it is the first day of school in September, and Maddy is sitting, inconspicuously she hopes, in her Grade 10 English class. Ms. Mousumi, the teacher, assigns a collective writing project, a novel in which the individual chapters are to be at least 300 words in length, with the chapters’ writers being assigned alphabetically by their surnames. Consequently, it becomes Kara Adovasio’s task to write the establishing chapter. She called the class novel “The Pain Eater”, and her chapter introduced the main character, 15-year-old Farang, who had been chosen at birth to become her tribe’s “pain eater”, the person who, at the full moon and under the direction of the high priestess, would “eat” the tribe members’ pain so that everyone’s pain would leave them and be carried by Farang. Because of her role in the tribe, Farang remains completely isolated from everyone, except on that one day per month.
Readers quickly come to learn that Maddy had told no one about the rape after it occurred, and, with the passage of time and the lack of physical evidence, she sees no upside in reporting it now. In fact, she can only foresee possible negatives, including what happened to Nova Scotia’s Rahtaeh Parsons after she came forward asserting that she had been raped by four teen males. What Maddy’s masked attackers don’t know is that she was able to identify three of them, two because she recognized their voices and one because his name was used during the rape. The attackers and the attacked find themselves in the Cold War position of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). Silence on both sides means “peace”, but to “encourage” Maddy’s continuing silence, periodically her assailants psychologically assault her. Late in the novel, one of the rapists leaks a rumour that he and his friends had group sex with Maddy, and so the ugly rumours that Maddy had feared begin to sweep through the school.
Because two of her attackers are in grade 11, Maddy can easily avoid them, but she shares her English class with one of the identified rapists, Ken Soong. His presence in class causes Maddy enormous anxiety, and, as a coping mechanism, she digs her right thumbnail into the back of her left hand, the physical pain temporarily masking her emotional pain. Out of school, Maddy has a more “effective” way of silencing her memories - applying the tip of a lit cigarette to her inner thigh.
Maddy’s parents and her older sister are aware of the significant changes that have occurred in Maddy’s personality since spring , and, after she won’t share what is “bothering” her, they supportively suggest she see a psychiatrist, something Maddy absolutely refuses to do. Things become emotionally worse for Maddy when, in English class, she is assigned to work in a small group with David Janklow, the person she has recently identified as the “lookout.” The first time Maddy has to sit across from David, she has a panic attack and is comforted by a fellow student, August Zire. This unexpected supportive action becomes one of the initiators of positive changes in Maddy.
The 22 “chapters” in the class novel are an important stylistic device in Goobie’s book. Goobie is able to give each of the 22 writers his/her own unique voice. Some of the chapters’ contents speak to Maddy’s situation; others speak more about that chapter’s author; and some do both. Though Maddy’s contribution to the class book should have appeared about two-thirds of the way through it, Goobie creates a believably scenario in which Maddy’s chapter closes the class novel. Another device that Goobie effectively uses to reveal Maddy’s changing state of mind is a chalk mural that she is creating in her childhood treehouse.
From personal experience, I can affirm that The Pain Eater is a novel that should be read at least twice. Like a member of the book’s intended adolescent audience, I was propelled through the novel by its emotional intensity. I desperately wanted to know what happened to Maddy. I feared that she may not survive mentally and/or physically, and I wanted to know if her attackers would be punished. Such an initial focus on plot by a reader is completely understandable, but, because I was to write a review of The Pain Eater, I reread it, this time much more slowly as my plot-related questions had all been essentially answered. Though I had been peripherally aware of Goobie, the writer, during my first reading, it was this slower second reading that revealed to me how superbly well-crafted this book is.
The Pain Eater deserves to be in all school and public libraries, and it should definitely be considered for classroom study. The contents of most of the 22 chapters in the class-written novel raise significant questions about interpersonal relationships that merit whole class or small group discussion. While females are certainly the novel’s intended primary audience, adolescent males should also respond to its contents.
Dave Jenkinson, CM’s editor, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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