“Everything was normal, just ‘different'”
- Book: Once You Know
- Location: Arizona, Chicago
- Author: Madeleine Van Hecke
When author Madeleine Van Hecke first made contact, she began by commenting that she particularly resonated with the review I had written for a certain book, many years ago now, but which I still remember for the deep emotional imprint it left on me. So when I read Madeleine’s resume and her book’s premise, I knew I was probably going to be up for reading a difficult storyline in this, her debut novel, and she has done a great job at not revealing too much in the synopsis. She does say right at the outset however, that the story has a trigger point of the Me Too movement, which may make it a disturbing read for some, but BOY! I had no idea what I was letting myself in for! I devoured the book in two rather lengthy sittings, which was probably my biggest mistake, as I was left a quivering emotional, but angry wreck, by the time I reached the final page, although there was a closure to the story which I wasn’t really expecting and left me with a little feel good moment right at the end of my reading!
The main focus of this well constructed storyline, was one of familial abuse, both physical and mental. However the expanded, wider storyline was intense, complex and multi-layered, with so many different strands of what were essentially separate events with similar themes of abuse, happening or having happened to several different individuals. At first I thought it to be a rather excessive display within such a relatively small cast of characters, but after experiencing how carefully and thoughtfully all the various individual experiences were exposed piecemeal, then expertly transformed and gathered into a single narrative, I could quite see how this scenario could be extended out into the reality of everyday life in our modern times. You never truly know what goes on in people’s lives behind closed doors, just how fragile a facade of normality can be and how easily it can be irrevocably shattered.
The fluid narrative and dialogue was compelling, troubling, explicit and harsh; but masterfully written, with a desperate intensity and with the total authority and intuitive confidence that the author is carrying the reader along on the journey with her. Madeleine effortlessly introduces new characters to the cast, then watches as their lives become inextricably linked by a common bond, observing their tenuous hold on relationships and often on reality itself. The gripping, almost voyeuristic storyline, touches on just about every human emotion and social exploitation of our modern day world, but it is dealt with and described so vividly and descriptively, yet compassionately, that Madeleine’s words and dialogue add great depth, meaning and humanity to the telling of stories full of pain, destruction and redemption.
This is very much a character driven storyline and Madeleine has certainly created a complex, damaged, multi-faceted cast of characters who stand up well to scrutiny, despite the fact that I was personally unable to relate to any of their troubled, life circumstances, and often didn’t find their personalities likeable, or their actions well considered or logical. However, I soon learned that before you judge someone, you need to have walked a mile in their shoes, a good lesson for me! When I first encountered Rachel’s psychologist, Monica, I must admit that the sceptic in me took over almost immediately. However the power of her verbal communication with Rachel and the direction in which she was able to lead the meetings, almost without Rachel being a willing party and often with Rachel deliberately trying to undermine the outcomes, was very powerful and life-changing not only for Rachel, but also subliminally, for so many of her family and friends. Monica’s intelligent listening skills and comforting, yet strangely unsympathetic words of encouragement, added a thoughtful new dimension to so many intrinsically linked reactions, which would eventually determine the outcomes for so many people.
Whilst ‘listening’ to Monica speak to Rachel, I fast came to the conclusion that the victims all suffered with self-esteem issues, which had left them searching for a sense of belonging in their broken lives. Whilst I realised that they neither wanted nor needed my own, or anyone else’s sympathy, they craved having their voices heard by an understanding, non-judgemental ear, who was not going to offer advice, rather guidance and support, while they worked through their own feelings and emotions, before deciding how to face the outside world and share their long supressed memories and experiences, with confidence and at peace with themselves. There is pain and shame which needs to be acknowledged, selfish thoughts and feelings of self hatred and worthlessness to be controlled and expunged. Image, self-loathing and addiction issues, all seem to go hand in hand. However at some point, to be able to move on and leave events behind, even if they are never forgotten, you need to own up to the memories and own the situation, be able to put them in a box with the lid well and truly closed, except for the times when you choose to remember in whatever guise that takes.
On the reverse side of the same coin, you have Colleen! What would you do as someone who learns of the abuse of someone you love, but yet about which you knew nothing? Do you rant and rave blaming everyone except yourself. Do you bury your head in the sand and try to make believe that allegations are exaggerated and that nothing could possibly have happened or you would have known. Do you even have the audacity to partially blame the victim in an attempt to protect the perpetrator who just wouldn’t be capable doing of such a thing. Do you really begin to show compassion towards the perpetrator, in the believe that they should be given another chance because they will have definitely changed and reformed. Do you only think of the consequences for yourself, somehow putting yourself at the front and centre as the injured party?
When do you begin to open your heart and mind to the victim, be prepared to really listen to them, then work together to find a way through the quagmire which will slowly suck you all in if you somehow don’t reverse the tide. When do you put your family before yourself and have the courage to take the side of ‘right over wrong’?
Madeleine does include some potential discussion points at the end of the book, which would form the basis of a robust debating platform for a book club or group. There are so many facets to both the storyline and characters, which are so certain to have made a unique impact on almost every individual reader, that there will be a myriad of thoughts and opinions.
This is definitely one of those books which makes reading such a wonderful experience, because as a reader I felt that I had been taken on a unique and individual journey.
This might be a work of fiction, however it does a great service to the cause of the Me Too movement and is an excellent reflection of the cultural and social history of our times, just waiting to be discovered by future generations of readers.