The Effects of Generational Abuse
Author: Catriona Ward
Rob’s life is only perfect on the outside. On the inside, it is a life of abuse and hatred. Something keeps Rob in her loveless marriage though. Makes her put up with her husband’s violence, keeps them hurting one another day in and day out. That something is her children. Two little girls. It’s worth the violence, the pain, the degradation. But then one day, Rob discovers the bones in Callie’s room. The tiny animal bones, fitted together against construction paper, reassembled into a whole. Callie says the ghosts come with her, keep her company. And so it begins. The past, it seems, is coming alive, despite what Rob has endured to keep everything seemingly normal.
Running away with Callie into the desert, Rob takes her daughter back to Sundial, her abandoned childhood home, where it all began. Here, she will make a choice. Here, she will show Callie the truth of her inheritance, the inner darkness that continues, generation from generation, the trauma that lives and breeds and dances, ghost pale, through the twisted minds of little girls.
Sundial is a strongly disturbing book, a book with a certain lyrical cadence that draws us in, like the hot, sun-soaked breath across a limitless desert, the last fresh feeling of life on a dying man’s cheek. Something about the very ugliness here, the horror with all its depths and permutations, is just as engrossing as it is ultimately putrescent. In the desert, you can hide, you can do things, and you can try, in your own perverted way, to fight evil.
Sundial is horror story, mixed liberally with mystery, with a dash of thriller thrown into the end. It’s a rough, although thankfully not graphic story, of family violence, mental illness, child abuse, spousal abuse, and animal abuse. It defines the word triggering, and the dark paths that are explored are horrifying not because of imagination, but because of their basis in reality. There is a touch of the supernatural here – but is it truly the workings of ghosts and restless spirts, or a glitching traumatized mind, hallucinating redemption and meaning? Hard to say.
Usually I cannot read or stomach a story fraught with animal abuse. Mind you, hypocritical because most (if not all) horror stories involve human abuse or, at the very least, violence against humans. Still, something about animal abuse bothers me in a visceral way, perhaps because of their very innocence and that fact that from the very beginning, back in the Garden of Eden, it was our collective duty and our joy to watch over the animals, to take care of them, nourish them, love them. The abuse here is not graphic, but it doesn’t need to be. The implication is horrific, sickening, but in the context of the plot, utterly essential. The tone here is one darker than gore. It’s phycological and twisted.
The questions here are real world questions. What is the legacy of trauma and abuse? How far can the mind bend? Naturally, there are some more outlandish elements, including the purpose behind the experimentation on dogs, but it fits in a weird way. The story has a lot going on, jumbled moments of insanity and hope merged with attempted normalcy. It requires full dedication and attention and is a truly sobering, somber experience. It’s hard to say that this is enjoyable, but the darkness is earned, similar to the gritty, hopeless feeling of Darcey Steinke’s Jesus Saves. Sundial is a grim tribute to survival, but even more so, it’s an ode to everyone ever abandoned in a bleak space, whether that be a physical space or a mental prison.
I couldn’t put Sundial down, even as the unrelenting depression, the layers of abuse, deception, and betrayal mounted into a haunting mélange. The intimation is that here, alone in the desert, there is a Sophie’s Choice decision pending, but is that really the truth? There is where the thriller aspect comes into play, and just as we sort out the overlapping threads of memory and time, we also confront an unstable, perhaps even unearned future. The answer is inevitable, really, but not expected. The showdown is tragic, bloody, and beautiful. The end message – is there one? – is a chasm, the opening maw of a charnel house, the legacy of abuse.
Sundial is a beautifully told story of incalculable horrors. It’s certainly not something to be approached by the faint of heart or anyone who has experienced abuse (I feel like it would be triggering on so many levels.) It’s gorgeously told, complex, provocative, breathless and horrible. I loved it, but I also hated what it stood for, this gory train wreck of an encompassing dive into a human created hell. Read at your own risk.
– Frances Carden
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