There’s nothing standard or conventional about Carrie Mesrobian’s Sex & Violence… at least not from a YA-literary point of view. It would be hard to pick a book – any book – within the current (or even last decade) wave of ‘realistic’ YA that is as openly bold and revealing about what sex can be and mean to a teenager today and what the impact of that is on a teen’s personality. Of course, ‘sex’ may have been present in a lot of those books (either implicitly or explicitly – NA anyone?), but an in-depth almost dramatic study of sexuality is hard to come by.
Ever since his mother died, 17-year-old Evan Carter and his father have been moving around. In that time Evan has attended too many schools to remember, which means that Evan has always been the “new guy”. Using this (mysterious) status to his own advantage, Evan has a past of hooking up with those girls most likely to have sex, making him into the perpetual philanderer moving from hook up to hook up, without any reason or desire to have any of those hook ups turning into meaningful relationships. He even goes so far as to delete the girls’ phone numbers after sex. In his current school, he’s sort of dating Collette, the ex-girlfriend of his brutish roommate. However, things go horribly wrong and Evan is brutally beaten and almost left for dead in the school’s communal shower. After this severe physical and mental trauma, Evan’s dad – who up till then was a mostly absent father – moves them to the quiet town of Pearl Lake, Minnesota. This is the place where Evan has to find a way to deal with his past and prevent it from occurring again.
Evan is not a nice character by any means. However, he doesn’t need to be to be a believable and realistic character, which Mesrobian has clearly understood. Obviously, the way Evan treats his hook ups is not very nice, making him into the ultimate asshole who gets what’s coming to him… BUT, Evan is also a person who has to deal with a severe traumatic event and the way Mesrobian manages to do that (e.g. Evan’s fear of taking showers) is incredibly well done. Sex & Violence is first and foremost a character study, investigating all the insecurities and resulting pains (again, both physical and psychological) that Evan Carter has to deal with. And for a character to change it takes more than just one thing, or one event, it takes a whole road of teeny tiny steps, and even then, there’s no guaranteeing that change – or resolution – will ever happen. This is probably the most frustrating thing for the reader: there’s not obvious or overt resolution in Sex & Violence. The reader does get a glimpse into what may or may not have been the ‘origins’ of Evan’s history of hooking up, but in all honesty, it’s not what will put the reader at rest. The anxiety, the pain and the guilt that Evan has carrying around with him don’t just miraculously go away, Evan is still Evan, how therapeutic the move to Pearl Lake, the sessions with his therapist (e.g. the letters to Collette), and the new relationships he’s formed, may have been for him… there are ugly parts of him that he will always have and that’s not even a bad thing.
After Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, this is the second novel I read this year that’s dealing in some way or other with PTSD and both of them have been incredibly successful at making the topic visible and open for debate. Something to show rather than to hide. Sex & Violence is really frank and open and unflinchingly real and one heck of a debut novel. Also, kudos to Mesrobian for the multi-faceted portrayal of girls in this book!
P.S. As a totally irrelevant aside, the edition I read contained a number of typos which I hope to see edited out in the next editions of the book. Yes, I’m anal like that. J
P.P.S. Second aside: people looked weird at me in the train when I was reading this book. Yes, the title of course, but I think they also thought I was reading a gay S&M novel if I had to analyze the way they looked at the cover… Don’t judge a book by its (paperback) cover is definitely something that rings through here, though. But I have to say I much prefer the hardcover issue.