One of the joys of starting this blog has been learning about military spouses who write. I feel like taking to the streets, a la Paul Revere: “The mil spouses are writing! The mil spouses are writing!”
In recent weeks, I’ve found two little pieces of treasure that I’d like to share with you, each different and worthwhile in its own way: Stephanie Carroll’s historical novel, A White Room (set in early-1900s Missouri) and R.H. Ramsey’s Like Shards of Glass, a dark, modern, psychological tale of loss and addiction. I am reviewing them both here, creating my own mini “Mil Spouses Who Write Week,” starting with Like Shards of Glass.
Please see the two posts following this one for 1) an interview with Shards of Glass author R.H. Ramsey and 2) a review of Stephanie Carroll’s A White Room.
Book Review: Like Shards of Glass by R.H. Ramsey
In Like Shards of Glass, author R.H. Ramsey explores what happens to people drawn together by tragedy — not rising above the tragedy, necessarily, but pulled by the darkness of that tragedy as if into a whirlpool. At the center of this whirlpool is an enigmatic woman named Monroe Song, whose husband has just committed a terrorist act that has thrown her life, and that of her teenaged son, into complete disarray. Though she tries to overcome what has happened to her, Monroe will find herself bringing other people into the darkness left in her husband’s wake, and the addictions she’s using to try to help herself survive.
Monroe’s late husband Carter is a firefighter who’s tormented by the violence and loss to which he’s had to bear witness over the course of his career. It’s degrading his soul bit by bit. But a series of bombings at three downtown banks (author Ramsey is from Oklahoma City, prompting me to wonder if Timothy McVeigh’s attack there plays into her conception of this fictional event) causes him to suffer a compete mental break. Without warning he goes on a spree of violence, gunning down medical personnel and children at the clinic where he volunteers, murdering his three youngest sons, and finally killing himself. If all of the characters in Like Shards of Glass are drawn by darkness, Carter is the sole character for whom darkness has completely won.
Many days I didn’t exist to him, and he seemed to have befriended the memories of lives which had slipped through his hands. Those friends, those memories, urged him to spend hours in the basement with his rifles. Yet still, I knew that he would always, at some point in the night, roll over and throw his arm across my waist. Sure, people talked about being with someone, and their true colors beginning to show. But what about being with someone — a goodhearted person who had been destroyed only because he had always dreamed of being a hero?
Carter’s act is almost too awful even to read about (though, thankfully, it’s mostly alluded to as a past event), so one cannot imagine how the wife and son left behind must deal with this. But there are people in this world who have had to deal with unspeakable things, and so I found myself drawn into Monroe’s life, trying to see how she could go on.
The answer: most of the time, she barely does. She and her surviving son, an 18-year-old named Karter after his father (but with a ‘K’), move in with her friend and the friend’s family, which includes the family’s young-twenty-something son, Dominique. Dominique’s attraction to Monroe — still beautiful and magnetic despite her sadness and addictions — is immediate (“I was mortified, intimidated. But her eyes lulled me. I wanted inside her mind”). Dominique will be the one who introduces Monroe to the drug called “Sky,” which they begin chewing as pills wrapped in gum and move on to shooting up before lovemaking. (In one harrowing scene, Dominique, feeling emasculated by Monroe and helpless to assist her, jabs a full syringe of Sky directly into her neck).
Dominique is one of several characters who populate the novel and who, in turn, narrate chapters. These characters are all tightly interrelated by circumstance, circling around each other, eyeing one another, always trying to gauge where they stand. It makes for satisfying, psychologically in-depth reading. Monroe longs to escape the horror of her memories, and most of her chapters are preoccupied with a desire to find peace, to forget. Her son Karter, who must bear the terrible burden of reminding everyone of his father, yearns to have a sense of family again, even as he nurses a steady sense of disgust about his mother’s and Dominique’s relationship. He’s also tormented by demons of his own: he once brutally attacked a cousin; he has no memory of a span of two weeks following the murders, from which he returned home with a mysterious broken hand; and, in a cruel twist of fate, he is so spectacularly, shall we say, hung that he cannot consummate his relationship with the one girl he loves, a virgin who mistakes his refusal for a rejection. (At this point I’ll admit I thought, Damn! Cut this kid some slack!)
Then there’s Dominique, shiftless, handsome, and lazy, and lacking Karter’s moral fortitude. Dominique feels guilty because he’s bedding Karter’s mom, and scared because he knows that if Karter finds out, he might kill him. He’s right to be concerned, on both counts.
R.H. Ramsey is an impressively psychological writer, plumbing her characters’ mental states with particular attention to the double-edged swords of their nature. It’s as if each character is a mirror for the others, and then Ramsey gives each mirror one sharp crack, so that the characters reflect all the different sides of one another — longing, despair, anger, altruism, hope, rage. No one in the book is all good or all bad, not even the “terrorist” himself, Monroe’s former husband. While several of the relationships approach abuse, Ramsey examines the slippery nature of such a word: How can we understand what it is, exactly, that people do to each other? How do we judge the way people treat each other when one or both parties are hurting?
Monroe is a tricky protagonist: her self-destruction and addictions make her hard to “like,” exactly, but her pain is skillfully wrought. The novel opens with narration from Monroe’s eventual lover Dominique, so I expected that he might be the champion of the story in the end. But, as all the shades of various characters’ personalities reveal themselves throughout the book, it gradually felt to me like Karter was the story’s heart. He is the most innocent, perhaps, having no choice over the family into which he was born; while Monroe saw warning signs of her husband’s gradual degradation over the years, she was in a better position to do something about it than Karter was. And his plight of carrying his father both in looks and name (even Monroe is occasionally repulsed when she glances up and catches certain angles of her son, so much does he look like his dad) was truly poignant. Karter is the only one who does not succumb to drug addiction; he strains to keep control of the wild emotions he’s forced to endure. I hitched my allegiance to Karter near the end of the book, when he demands of his pill-addled, but-still-fighting mother:
You’re scared of a flame? We’re in hell, Mom!…You’re scared of a demon; we survived the devil — Lucifer himself! He stole your heart, your soul right out of your chest. Remember that?
Like Shards of Glass might be overwhelmingly bleak if it were not for the compassionate treatment of its characters and the notes of redemption that ring all the more true because they are so rare. I suspect that, whatever R.H. Ramsey writes next, she’s gonna take us somewhere dark, but I’ll still go along for the ride.
Ramsey, R.H. Like Shards of Glass. Inknbeans Press, 2014.
“I write because I don’t say a lot, but I have a lot to say. I write, because someone out there lost his/her voice, and will know that they are not all alone. I write, because no matter how still I may appear, there is a fluttering deep down — reverberating — sending waves through my body to my fingertips. I write because when I write, I defy time, gravity, thieves, lawlessness .. and the chains of insecurity. I write, because when I write, I travel to the very cracks I’ve slipped through, and there, I am found.” (Inknbeans Press bio)
Buy Like Shards of Glass here.