The God of War, Marissa Silver, Simon & Schuster, 2008, 271 pp
Marisa Silver's second novel made a huge emotional impact on me. I was alternately enthralled and annoyed but by the end I could not recall what had annoyed me. Laurel is a single mom raising two sons in a cramped trailer on the Salton Sea in the late 1970s. The story is told by her older son, twleve-year-old Ares, who chooses to play the god of war in the family.
Ares is tortured by the conviction that because he dropped his younger brother on his head when Malcolm was a baby, he is responsible for Malcolm's developmental difficulties. As in a Greek tragedy, Ares' guilt drives the story, the incidents and the arc of his life.
I could relate to Laurel in her extreme determination to live on her own terms. She works as a massage therapist and barely supports her children. She refuses to face Malcolm's troubles, which are either retardation or some form of autism, preferring to see him as merely a child who develops at his own pace, and she flatly rejects any intervention by authorities, social or medical. Ares and Malcolm have different fathers who are long gone.
Because of their life style, Ares assumes most of the care of his brother, thereby expiating some of his guilt. We are not surprised when things go very wrong, not least because a gun appears early in the tale. I loved the development of each character though not a single one is entirely admirable, just as none of us are. The melding of place, time and character in this novel is an extraordinary feat similar to an expertly cooked meal.
The Salton Sea, one of those iconic California locations, which fascinates those of us who live here, is as much of a character as Ares or Laurel. I have never visited there but someday I will and I will go with trepidation. It is the perfect setting for a woman like Laurel, whom I simultaneously admired and deplored, because I could have been her.
In the 70s, many of us went off the grid of middle class life, turning our backs on everything our parents held dear, losing our religion, rejecting Western medicine and mental treatment, tripping down the paths of mysticism, certain that by benign neglect we would raise our children to be free spirits who would inherit the better world we were creating. Reading The God of War was as much an exploration of my own guilt as it was that of Ares' guilt.
Laurel, Ares and even the unfortunate damaged Malcolm made decisions based on the urge to be free. As in any life such decisions can be life saving and devastating at the same time. Hopefully I have made it somewhat clear how I could be both enthralled and annoyed by this novel. Hopefully I have made you want to read The God of War.
(The God of War is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)