She is pretty and talented – sweet sixteen and never been kissed. He is seventeen; gorgeous and on the brink of a bright future. And now they have fallen in love. But… they are brother and sister.
Seventeen-year-old Lochan and sixteen-year-old Maya have always felt more like friends than siblings. Together they have stepped in for their alcoholic, wayward mother to take care of their three younger siblings. As defacto parents to the little ones, Lochan and Maya have had to grow up fast. And the stress of their lives—and the way they understand each other so completely—has also brought them closer than two siblings would ordinarily be. So close, in fact, that they have fallen in love. Their clandestine romance quickly blooms into deep, desperate love. They know their relationship is wrong and cannot possibly continue. And yet, they cannot stop what feels so incredibly right. As the novel careens toward an explosive and shocking finale, only one thing is certain: a love this devastating has no happy ending.
This is a special little gem of a book that I read many, many moons ago- I think at the age of 13 or 14. Was I too young for it? By many people’s standards, yes. Did that stop me from loving the book and- much more importantly- understanding what the book was trying to tell me? Absolutely not. I read the blurb, in a small library in my home town, and it shocked me to the bone. I remember freezing and thinking “I’ve never seen anything like this,” and I knew I had to read it. For the record, I read this book twice more after that, once at 15 and once again at 17, because it was that good. And the story hit me again, over and over, and I never felt the need to ‘grow into this book’ because, despite its ‘taboo’ nature and mature themes, its impact on me would be the same no matter what age I was when I read it.
Let’s get one thing straight. This book, if you don’t already know, is about incest. You know, the topic that no one likes to talk about? The topic that people laugh awkwardly and cringe at, imagining things like mutant babies, physically disabled Pharaohs and strange arranged marriages between cousins in Victorian England? Yes, incest. Except it’s treated in a completely unusual way. It makes you question your own sanity and values for even feeling the tiniest hint of encouragement for Lochan and Maya. And that is what a good book should do. Challenge you.
One of the key arguments about this book is the nature of the story. No one wants to feel like a pariah who somehow encourages incest. People get confused when the two characters actually turn out to be worth rooting for. People were uncomfortable about the sexual content. People were uneasy about the target audience- impressionable youths- and the impact the story would have on them. In my personal opinion, a reader of any age (be it a 17 year old who reads in their demographic and ventures younger, or a 13 year old who tackles more mature books) can read a book like this. It is mature. It is graphic, and disturbing. But I believe readers should always challenge themselves by reading outside the box. If an adult can read and enjoy simple young adult books, then a younger reader should be able to read a mature book without people worrying for their very soul. Like I said, I read this quite young. Perhaps other people my age would have been horrified enough to put it down straight away. It really disturbed me, but I finished it. And it didn’t destroy my youth and innocence. In fact, it made me think. Think about human nature, taboos and stigma. The ‘shock value’ of the book is what people worry about, and they shouldn’t. I didn’t throw societal rules to the wind and think “you know what? Incest is absolutely okay! Why aren’t we encouraging this?” Instead, it just made me question human psychology and examine love in a whole new light. If this book could do that to a 14 year old, then I’d say that mature content aside, it’s a pretty important book.
Now, long rant aside, I’ll get into what I actually loved about the book. Spoilers towards the end.
Tabitha Suzuma took on a major task when she picked this topic. And I mean MAJOR. It’s like attaching a bullseye to your chest and saying “aim your judgement for my own moral values and mental state here.” I wouldn’t be brave enough to write a book like this. And she wrote it beautifully.
You can close your eyes to the things you do not want to see, but you cannot close your heart to the things you do not want to feel.
Each character is well defined. Lochan is a student whose personal life at home is the only one he’s comfortable with. But his role as the father figure, and indeed Maya’s role as the mother figure, takes a toll on them both. You could feel Lochan’s anxiety at trying to fit into the world. He is just so broken. Maya has more going on for her, because she understands society and how to fit in. Kit is wonderfully complex, at the cusp of being a teenager, where he feels the need to challenge his caretakers, take out his anger on his loved ones and fight his feelings by venting outwards. We’ve all either been or have encountered a Kit. The two youngest siblings, Willa and Tiffin, are not too innocent to know that they have been dealt a bad hand by fate, having such an uncaring mother, yet they are lucky enough to know love and caring from their older siblings, which sadly escalates into a parental love which turns the two protagonists to each other. The roles they have been forced to take affects their outlook on their relationship. And at this point, a reader is guided into their downfall. SOME SPOILERS AHEAD. IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT, GO DO IT NOW.
I loved the writing of the book. You feel every word, and Suzuma is great at showing and not telling. The sexual scenes, however? There is no sugercoating those. They are blunt, they are detailed, and they are very sexual. Too much for younger readers picking up this book? Again, I don’t think so. Sex is a thing. There’s no point hiding it to spare innocence. Suzuma does a wonderful thing where she doesn’t insult a reader’s intelligence by writing a lilting sex scene of indiscriminate appearance. When the characters had sex, they had sex. It was described as sex should be, especially the first time round. The whole book built up to that point, where the characters grew tired of questioning the significance of their actions and decided to let love be love. As a reader, following in the steps of their journey, I could feel every frustration, every feeling and emotion that guided their decision. Heck, I was rooting for them! And no, not because Suzuma had created a 14 year old, incest-supporting, morally corrupt youth in me, but because the characters were human, they suffered from the injustice of human society (which every one of us has experienced at one point or another) and they fought for what they wanted. All of these experiences make a reader want to empathise with the ones suffering, especially if they are good people who want nothing from anyone but understanding. That is the message that Suzuma was trying to get out. After finishing the book, do you still have the same ideas about incest? Are Lochan and Maya perverse, disgusting outcasts of humanity? Or do you have a new understanding of how one’s orbit in society and their upbringing influence their actions?
A final thought, on the ending. I won’t lie, I cried for days. I was in complete and utter shock. Never had I been so affected by a novel, so emotionally shook up, confused, and disgusted with myself for being disgusted at the world for prohibiting two people from loving each other (that said, I was only 14, but like I said, it wouldn’t matter how old I was). With those emotions, I gave the book five stars. Because it made me feel pain. It broke my barriers down. I never blamed Kit, because it wasn’t his fault he was confused. I wanted Lochan to live. I wanted them to have a happily ever after, knowing it wasn’t possible. Knowing that their actions would not go unpunished, and eternal suffering for their actions was all that would follow. So tell me this, does that count as ‘encouraging incest?’ Because to this day, I simply do not know.
I would recommend this book to everyone. Even if you finish it feeling nothing but disgust, at least it challenged your perceptions of the norm.
(On a lighter note, this is officially my longest review so far (hot damn), yet I could write a whole thesis on this book. It far surpasses the YA genre, and should be read by all ages, because Suzuma treats a reader with respect. It’s some deep shit, man. Did anything I say even make sense?)