Before I start this review, I need to warn readers that this book and this review, deals with sensitive issues. Anyone who struggles reading about topics of sexual molestation, sexual abuse and rape should stop reading and be aware that this book deals with these topics.
This review will contain spoilers, as I cannot delve into my thoughts without revealing pieces of the plot.
Alphonse is a story of a small town and a family. The title, refers to a man, Alphonse, friends of the Sadlers, who used to be a train-jumping hobo but has now settled into small town life. He has settled in this small town specifically to be around the Sadlers, who he befriended on one of his adventures.
The main story centers around Francis, the youngest of the Sadler boys, who is tasked with cleaning up one of the church bell towers. Pigeons have settled and the town decides the problem needs to be addressed. Alphonse notices strange looks from Father Brennan, a priest he clearly has a history with, and that Francis himself seems to be changing throughout the summer.
It becomes obvious fairly quickly that Father Brennan is abusing Francis. When you read the synopsis, it makes it seem that Alphonse begins to suspect and then finds out the truth. I have a few issues with the plot.
First, it’s clear throughout the novel that Alphonse dislikes Father Brennan. We even get a glimpse of their earlier interaction, although this scene was vague and didn’t really answer any questions about their relationship, other than Brennan was a key in helping Alphonse get sexually assaulted by two other vagrants. So, if Alphonse was suspicious of Father Brennan, why did it take so long for him to act on Francis’ behalf?
My second issue is with the sexual abuse. Francis is supposed to be thirteen. I actually thought he was much younger, and the type of abuse doesn’t really make sense for a thirteen year old boy. Seven or eight? Sure, I would buy how he behaved. But not thirteen. It didn’t feel real to me.
Once Alphonse suspects what is happening, it actually takes him quite a long time to act or even tell Francis’ father. Instead, when he sees him torturing animals, his brilliant idea is to give the boy traps. I have no idea what the author was trying to demonstrate with his part of the plot, other than to try and open Francis eyes to his cruelty, but it didn’t feel developed to me. It just seemed like cruelty on top of cruelty in the place of trying to actually stop the cause of the problem: the abuse!
There is quite a bit about the tense relationship between the brothers. A weird scene where Francis finds Zach getting a blowjob from a girl Francis liked, and a strange competitive nature between the brothers is really all we’re given. Why is Zach so angry at Francis? To the point of hatred? It was a weird subplot that didn’t make sense to me.
We are never really given a sense of who Father Brennan is, other than a Nazi sympathizer who was kicked out of the Polish army. And that he watched Alphonse get raped. But, beyond that, how did Alphonse know he was a child abuser? How did they meet before the assault? Even the threat at the end that Alphonse gave him was vague and strange.
Finally, my main issue is the ending. Father Brennan is successful in his new position in the church, with no repercussions or consequences. Francis comes back and the young priest that was fired at the beginning of that fateful summer is in Brennan’s position in the town’s church. But, the main problem is the advice he gives older Francis. Leave the past in the past.
For anyone who is a victim of sexual abuse, I think this message is terrible. Leave the past alone? There is no discussion of healing, of trying to heal that rift in his life. Instead, everyone seems content to accept that he has suppressed and blocked out all memory of this trauma and that any quirks, like losing time or feeling lost should just be accepted? In fact, it doesn’t even seem like the family, who knows about the abuse, ever even discusses what happened.
There is a danger of encouraging victims of abuse to simply accept the abuse and move forward. Being subjected to trauma like that is life-changing. Losing chunks of time is not healthy or normal. It is a defense mechanism that happens when placed under extreme duress. To not even mention therapy, or counseling, or even just TALKING about it is dangerous, unhealthy, and irresponsible.
I am not a reader who cannot read tough or difficult subject matter. But, if I am going to read about sexual abuse and rape, there had better be solid messaging in the plot. Or a good reason for the abuse. This book seems to be solely centered on this abuse. So, the entire book is made or broken by the result of the abuse. And in my opinion, it misses the mark severely.
In a book like this, character development is vital. I don’t think any of the characters were deeply developed or brought to life. They were instead caricatures of characters. I didn’t understand them, I didn’t identify or relate to them and I certainly didn’t connect with any of them. To really bring a trauma and tragedy to life, it has to be more than just an event. It felt like the author was using abuse in a variety of ways to drive the plot. The abuse is the event, the plot needs to be moved forward through the characters, otherwise the event has no meaning, other than trauma for trauma’s sake.
Books that deal with sexual abuse and trauma are important. Not just for victims of abuse, but also to help people understand the depth of that trauma. Authors that undertake that subject matter have a responsibility to ensure that it is well represented and thoughtfully executed. Unfortunately, this book is a huge miss for me.
Thank you Booksparks for giving me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.