Some books, we know, blow your metaphorical pants off. Some books, once you’ve read em, you can’t ever imagine your life without the knowledge of that book in it. Some books define you. Some books shake you. Some books challenge you. Some books tantalise. Some thrill. Some books you don’t get right away. Some books you come back to. And some books – some books do the job. Some books give you what you want. Some books give you what you want when you didn’t even know what it was you wanted. Some books are also just alright. Some books are terrible. There are, after all, a lot of books in the world. This much we can all agree on. Some books do just enough to warrant a shrug. Some books squeak by. Some books hang on in there by their fingernails. And some books reveal potential. Save Yourself, Kelly Braffet’s third novel, is one of those latter kind. This is a novel so full of potential that if you squeezed it hard enough liquid potential would run all over your hands like sap from a tree.
What we have here is one of those novels that follow a bunch of different people who eventually converge on one another. To begin with there are two main plot strands – one focusing on a guy in his early twenties called Patrick Kusamano (and if you’re anything like me, you’ll read the name Kusamano and then spend about three weeks trying to work out where it’s familiar from and then you’ll slap the heel of your hand against your forehead and go, oh yeah, Tony Soprano’s neighbours) and one strand focusing on a teenage school girl called Verna Elshere, whose mum and dad are of the religious persuasion and spend a great deal of their time campaigning about what should and shouldn’t be taught in school – which makes Verna (or ‘Venereal’, as a great many of her fellow pupils call her) a target and her life miserable. Patrick is not living a life full of sunshine and roses himself: his dad knocked over and killed a child when he was drunk and the town think Patrick and his brother Mike are just about as bad as their dad who is busy serving time. Patrick lives with Mike and Mike’s girlfriend Caro, works a minimum wage job, tries to do his best but is regarded as almighty scum by a great many people.
What connects Patrick to Verna is Verna’s sister Layla, named after the Clapton song from a time before mum and dad bought into religion; Layla is a girl who is busy embracing the wrong side of the tracks. She cut and dyed her hair, she causes arguments, she smokes, she sleeps with boys, she lies. All of that. She takes a hankering to Patrick because she knows her mum and dad think he is the devil incarnate. She pursues him, even though he has a thing for his brother’s girlfriend. Patrick doesn’t like her very much but he’s weak. Verna, meanwhile, is getting beat up at school. A bunch of the goodlooking popular kids take a powerful dislike to her and wage something of a campaign against her, painting obscenities on her locker, posting lies about her online, setting about her with large heavy books on places that don’t bruise easily. Layla introduces Verna to her friends, a small group of outsiders who like to gather around a campfire in the dead of night and drink each other’s blood. Now. Don’t get all put out by that last thing – this isn’t a vampire novel. Just because Braffet is married to Stephen King’s youngest son Owen doesn’t mean that she’s ploughing a sort of YA horror line. Save Yourself is horrific at times but it isn’t a horror novel – and it isn’t YA. This is a book for grown ups in which some of the characters are young.
So in some respects Braffet is a sort of blue collar writer. These are people who wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Willy Vlautin novel. Or a Bruce Springsteen song. There are many ruminative moments in the books, points at which these people – many of whom don’t have all that much – take a look at their lives and wonder, is that it? Is that all I can expect from the hand that was dealt me? The drama for about two thirds of the book is largely based around what people say to each other, what people take away from what gets said, what people understand or misunderstand about the situations they’re in – and Braffet handles it all really well. It’s a compelling read, even as you know she’s setting the scene. If there are complaints (or niggles – let’s say niggles) in the early stages of the book, they arise predominantly because she has a habit of circling around – we see a day from Patrick’s point of view, we see a day from Caro’s point of view, there are intersections and overlaps. Sometimes you think, judicious editing wouldn’t have entirely hurt here. But it is, as I say, a niggle.
Later, when Layla’s sort of boyfriend Justinian (and oh how the spelling of that name irritates me in some abstract way, even though it’s a good fit for the character) comes more to the fore and the vampirism gives way to a deeply unsettling bout of communal self-harm that then gives way to a vaguely We Need to Talk about Kevin moment, you start to wish that maybe Braffet held some things back. It’s everything but the kitchen sink at times. But even when the plausibility is stretched (and it does stretch, and you feel the momentum of the plot take over, the characters becoming somewhat driven by the imperatives of what the writer possibly thinks the reader expects at that point, rather than maintaining the sombre true pace of the earlier parts of the book) – even when the plausibility is stretched, Braffet never entirely loses the reader. If the book was a first date, then maybe you get to the point where you wonder if you’ve been holding hands for too long because the palms are getting sweaty and you don’t know if it’s you or her – but you don’t let go of her hand. You sort of trust she knows where she’s going. And she kinda does.
The thing to take away from Save Yourself, though, is that it’s a fine enough novel. The writing is good. The plotting is good. The characterisation is good. Kelly Braffet has it in her to be interesting, to do interesting things, to take us to interesting places. We will watch what she does next with – you’ve guessed it – interest.
Any Cop?: A dark slice of Americana that is occasionally so dark that you have to read through your fingers but for all that it’s sturdy and intelligent and not afraid to look at ugliness. We liked it.