Book review

'Sorrow': a harrowing tale of sex abuse and revenge

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In "Sorrow," author Catherine Gammon constructs a wrenching novel by following the architectural outline of one of the greatest psychological tales of murder and its aftermath, "Crime and Punishment."

While not a retelling of that story, "Sorrow" relies on the scaffolding of Fyodor Dostoevksy's masterpiece to build an anguished tale of horrific sexual abuse, murder, guilt, punishment, forgiveness and perhaps redemption.

By Catherine Gammon.
Braddock Avenue Books ($16).

This ambitious undertaking is only partly successful. Ms. Gammon's work certainly establishes and maintains a deeply dark and disturbing tone, exploring the wide-spreading ripples of destruction and pain that radiate from years of abuse. In many places, the writing is vivid and evocative, especially in several hallucinatory passages.

However, the book's numerous and graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse of a child, resumed again when that child is an adult, eventually move past honest and unflinching to unrelenting and unbearable. Perhaps the author was attempting to create in her readers the same sense of dread and distress the victim felt, not knowing when the next episode would occur. In any case, this unsettling book asks a great deal of its readers, and for many the rewards may not prove sufficient for their efforts.

Set in New York City around 1990, "Sorrow" tells the story of Anita Palatino, a young woman living with her controlling mother in an apartment building populated by immigrants and working people. Anita lives a tightly contained life by day -- she dresses very modestly for her dead-end office job, comes straight home after work, doesn't date or socialize with anyone. But many nights she flees from her sleeping mother to roam the streets and alleys of the neighborhood seeking anonymous, dangerous sexual encounters.

Anita is plotting to kill her mother: she has created a no-win choice for herself, either murder or suicide. Because this is a psychological study, rather than a suspense novel, the murder of the mother takes place early on, and is rather low key.

A scene of Anita calmly slicing an orange with the carefully washed knife she used in the killing is a wonderful and chilling touch; we can see her life-saving ability to emotionally remove herself from a scene of horror.

This skill was honed over the years of constant sexual abuse by several generations of men in her family, beginning when she was a very young child in California, and ending when she was 11, when her mother took her to New York to protect her, shattering the family in the process. But by then Anita was so damaged and her soul so "erased" that she would never be whole again.

Much of what we learn about Anita's past unfolds through recalled memories and nightmares. We come to know the adult through her interactions with others in the building, including Tomas, fleeing violence in El Salvador and living with his uncle, Cruz García. Both men love Anita. Magda Ramirez is a widow whose own loneliness and grief intersect with Anita's.

We also meet Sydney Booker, a soon-to-retire police detective, who immediately suspects Anita of the murder (another echo of "Crime and Punishment"). Perhaps the character that both carries and causes the most pain is Danny, Anita's sadistic brother, who shows up at his mother's wake, and serves as the spark to explode the lives of the other characters.

The complex character of Anita is well drawn, if ultimately unknowable, and the secondary characters of Magda and Tomas come alive and evoke sympathy; we wish for more insights into the murdered mother, and the brother Danny is too awful to be fully believable.

Ms. Gammon is a talented writer, and offers a thoughtful meditation on the difficult and painful issues of sexual abuse and healing. However, too often the author relies on stylistic ploys to create a mood -- there are several instances of successive paragraphs of two and three word sentences, and a four-page unpunctuated single sentence -- using them as a substitute for compelling or clarifying dialogue or narrative.

At other times, intrusive and jarring exposition by the omniscient third-party narrator provides missing chunks of background, explaining what happened and telling us what people are feeling. This makes for a disjointed read.

"Sorrow" is one of five books published to date by a local independent literary press Braddock Avenue Books, founded in 2012, with the stated goal of publishing both new and established writers "whose work engages honestly and meaningfully with contemporary circumstances," especially writers who use literary fiction "for serious explorations of what it means to be alive today." It's easy to see why they selected "Sorrow."

Eileen Weiner, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, lives in Shadyside (

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