Time for a true confession: of the five 2014 Morris Award nominated titles, I’ve read only one. All of the books had been on my to-read list before becoming Morris finalists, but we all know what happens with to-read lists and then you’ve only read one of the books. Fortunately for me, that book was Carrie Mesrobian’s Sex & Violence. It’s challenging and smart work from a promising writer—truly deserving of the Morris nod (and I really regret not being able to judge it against the rest of the field).
Mesrobian has a clear thesis in Sex & Violence; it’s mostly there in the title, but she’s also interested in how an already emotionally detached young person copes with PTSD. The latter is really the meat of the book and what makes it work: after a violent attack in his boarding school’s shower leaves him without a spleen, Evan begins to question his sexual history and actions which led to the assault. Mesrobian puts the reader directly in his head by writing in first person, but Evan is never entirely honest with himself, making him an impenetrable narrator. It’s only in his letters to Collette where he reveals anything true about himself, because it’s as he writes these letters that he begins to understand who he is. Evan’s voice is consistent and pitch perfect; this kind of assured writing is worth the price of admission.
As a coming-of-age novel, the book is unique in that the plot doesn’t follow a typical trajectory. Evan’s self-discovery is slow, subtle, and not entirely resolved; in other words, it’s totally realistic, not realistic fiction. The downside of the book’s stark realism is that for long stretches, it seems like not much is happening. That’s not to say that the book is boring; indeed, the character development of all the characters, but of Evan in particular, maintain interest. However, pacing was an issue that occasionally marred the reading experience.
Although not without flaws, Sex & Violence is a fascinating debut novel. Mesrobian has a great ear for dialogue, particularly teen-speak and profanity that never feels contrived or overused. This is a book that’s received a warm critical response, but I’m not sure that there’s been a ton of Printz buzz. And that’s okay. Mesrobian undoubtedly has tighter and stronger writing in her future.
For additional (and much deeper) critical commentary on Sex & Violence head over to Stacked, where Kelly Jensen’s written a terrific review. Also (just because) you really need to check out Mesrobian’s tumblr, Conversations with My Fake Boyfriend. It’s like the Ryan Gosling Hey Girl meme, but a million times better and funnier. Trust me, it will make your day better.
Anyone out there think this is a legit Printz dark horse? I’d also love someone to chime in on how it stacks against the Morris competition. So go ahead, comment away!