So Much It Hurts by Monique Polak (Orca Book Publishers, $12.95)
By Stuart Nulman
Iris Wagner is a 17-year-old girl who needs an escape. She lives with her divorced mother, who puts in long hours as a professional closet organizer, and she has never seen her father since she was a young child. She finds that escape in her school’s drama class, in particular, the upcoming class production of “Hamlet”, in which she will play the role of Ophelia.
However, Iris catches the attention of Mick Horton, the 31-year-old Australian-born director of the play, who works alongside Ms. Cameron, the school’s drama teacher. Mick is a natural charmer, realizes Iris’ potential as a capable actress, and above all, respects her as a woman and treats her as an adult (he even has a pet name for her, “Joey”). Naturally, they both fall in love and secretly carry on a relationship.
For Iris, this secret affair is idyllic for her, as she sees her time with Mick (which are usually spent on weekends, at his west end Montreal condo) as her escape from her difficult teenage life and her bridge to adulthood. However, little by little, Iris begins to see a dark side to Mick. She learns that he is going through a bitter divorce battle in his native Australia, and is in constant communication with his lawyer over the proceedings. She also realizes that Mick has flashes of anger, which he first channels by punching a hole through a wall in his condo; and later, through a slight disagreement, by punching an unsuspecting Iris in the face. Although Iris thinks these incidents were brought about by the pressures he was going through with his divorce battle and its complications, she doesn’t realize that these are the beginnings of an abusive relationship.
Basically, Iris entered this relationship with an older man whom she thought would love and respect her and offer her an escape from her teenage life; however she didn’t expect to end up as a statistic, in which 62% of women suffer some form of physical abuse at the hands of their spouse or boyfriend. This very controversial and always relevant social issue is the focus of Montreal writer Monique Polak’s latest YA novel So Much It Hurts.
Through a lot of painful detail, Polak shows through Iris’ ordeal, of how an abusive relationship evolves and how it can easily go from bad to worse. Nothing is left out. There’s the feeling of love and importance at the offset; there’s the gradual taking control of Iris’ life by Mick (for example, telling what type of clothes she should wear, or friends she should no longer hang around with); there’s the lying and deceit; there’s the alienation of family and friends; and of course, there’s the violent episodes, where even copious amounts of makeup cannot conceal the abuse Iris is undergoing to her friends and teachers in school.
And above all, there is the constant state of denial and justifications of Mick’s volatile behaviour that Iris tells herself regularly in order to preserve and validate this relationship that she believes will parachute her into adulthood. What makes these passages so compellingly uneasy to read are her instances of denial and justification are expressed not after the fact, but as they happen, in between the violent flashes, beatings and two-faced episodes courtesy of Mick Horton.
What I enjoy about Monique Polak’s YA novels is how she manages to use fiction effectively to raise awareness of issues and concerns that remains relevant to teens today. And that could be said greatly about how the trauma of abusive relationships is portrayed in So Much It Hurts. It’s a novel that doubles as an effective communication tool to teens who looked for love but found nothing but pain, and as a powerful warning of what an abusive relationship is all about, and the trickle down effect it can have for everyone involved, both directly and indirectly.
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at www.peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at www.CyberStationUSA.com, www.KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on www.PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Stuart can be reached at email@example.com.