What We Did: A Novel by Christobel Kent

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Isabel, Isabel: in the deep dark she remembered the girl’s innocence, her admiration, her glee at being special, it blazed. Bridget had been special once, as she frowned down at her instrument, the instrument burnished and warm from her touch, trying, trying, trying, her heart in her mouth. Him watching her, impatient.

Bridget’s world is on the verge of collapse all due to the return of her former music teacher Anthony Carmichael. Every soiled memory she has buried from that horrible time rises to the surface when he comes into her dress shop with a pretty, eager young girl named Isabel. Suddenly, the life she has been living is ripped from beneath her feet, is it possible to run, to move from the threat of him? The possessive, guiding way he was touching that little girl, the intimacy is like poison in Bridget’s veins. She should stop him, she should speak up but she is frozen in fear.

The days move on, she collects her senses and begins to relax into her daily routine sure that as a ‘visiting professor’ he won’t be around for long. Until she discovers he will be at the University her own husband works at, for much longer than she hoped. 2 years, if they can keep him, and the school is ‘lucky to have him.’ There is Isabelle, so much the same as Bridget once was, trusting, talented, open to the attention and charm of an adult. Though Bridget is no longer a child, everything about Carmichael brings chills, fear into the very cells of her being. Closer, closer he advances and then she snaps, from there an even bigger secret takes hold, but can she carry on as if nothing happened?

Bridget goes from sheltering her shameful past, which many sexually abused children feel responsible for, to hiding a criminal act. Then the story descends into a nightmare about her own son, who is keeping secrets about his own new relationship. There is also Gillian Lawson, who is looking for Dr. Carmichael, as she is digging into the past and alive with the chase of a story. She knows too that Bridget is a link, and with her husband working as the computer officer at Rose Hill, she has a way to reach her. Too, what of the husband, Matt? Is he a ‘genuinely nice man’, or is he the type to marry victims, to further abuse them? How much of a coincidence, she wonders, is it for Carmichael to end up where his former student’s husband works? It just figures a journalists is chasing truth when Bridget has something the size of…. Carmichael to hide.

The strength of the novel is in the emotional state Bridget’s abuser returning into her life puts her in. That a wife, mother, competently running her own dress shop can turn into a terrified wreck after having a run in with the man who sexually abused her, many years after it happened can explain just how debilatating sexual abuse is.  Her instinct is to uproot her life, which of course is not plausible, but that thought alone conveys just a drop of the fear and remnants of damage one person can wreak in another’s life. The fact she hasn’t told her husband anything, ever, that it’s remained bottled up inside of her all this time speaks volumes for how abusers walk away unscathed. The adult always has an edge, knows how to make a child believe that every viloation is mutual desire, and he/she is just as much to blame. If a child has a special talent, or is hungry for attention, how much easier it is for the abuser to manipulate them, to have access, to learn the family dynamics and use it against the child. I was expecting to see Carmichael exposed, to see him stripped for once of his power, publicly tarred as would seem just, but this was a completely different novel. What a strange turn. Not to say he doesn’t get punished but not what I expected. The ‘grooming’ is bigger than just Carmichael. I’ve read quite a few books that explore this very issue, one good thing is straight away there is no romanticized storyline. In fact, he turns your stomach from the very start. I sometimes felt all over the place, and the things that happen after the big moment between Bridget and Carmichael, which is very early in the novel, seem a bit hard to pull off, but truth is stranger than fiction and having a sister whose norm is chaos can come in handy, at least for Bridget.

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Fararr, Straus and Giroux

 

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