Kelly Braffet (www.kellybraffet.com)
When Patrick Cusimano’s father kills a child while driving drunk, Patrick calls the police. The "right thing", morally, isn’t necessarily the right thing for the Cusimano family, and Patrick’s older brother Mike resents him for it. Layla and Verna Elshere are the daughters of a preacher; Layla is the face of her father’s campaigns and she rebels as soon as she’s old enough to feel that she knows her own mind. Joining a gang of outsiders, Layla finds herself fascinated by Patrick Cusimano and his family, and feels the need to save her younger sister from the same fate that she, herself, has only recently escaped. As the different parts of Layla’s life intersect, guided by the charismatic Justinian, it becomes clear that the choices these people have made in the past, the choices that define the life they currently live, have massive – and potentially fatal – implications for their immediate futures.
Save Yourself is the third novel from rising US star Kelly Braffet. Small-town America has long provided rich pickings for storytellers of all types, and Braffet starts out on familiar ground: on the one hand we have the Cusimanos, a pair of brothers from the wrong side of the track, stuck in dead-end graveyard-shift jobs, heading for the same fate as their father: a life ruined by alcohol and inertia. On the other side of the tracks, the Elsheres, a man who runs his own church and uses his young daughters as the faces of his various campaigns. Until, of course, the inevitable rebellion, and acceptance of a lifestyle that is the polar opposite to the one they have been forced to live during their formative years, facilitated by Justinian and the small group of outsiders that he keeps close.
Dark and slow-moving, this is very much a character-driven piece, and Braffet shows a deft turn of hand in presenting these people to the reader, making them leap from the page, and building a complex set of relationships between them that lead, ultimately, to the gloriously noirish finale. Patrick, who turns his father in to the police and sleeps with his brother’s girlfriend, is the ultimate black sheep. He is well-matched, then, with Layla who is an outsider in her own family, and finds more comfort with the small group of likeminded people she calls friends. Fascinated by Patrick because of the family history, the relationship turns darkly sexual, adding to the burden that already weighs Patrick down. Verna, bullied at school by the same crowd that gave her older sister such a hard time, welcomes the relief that comes with abandoning the life she knows and following in her sister’s footsteps. And Justinian, hardly more than a teenager, but with a strange "pull" that gives him power over the small band of misfits that he believes are his own, the dark, demented puppet-master that seems to be pulling all the strings.
As the story progresses, and we see how these relationships play out, it becomes clear that Layla and Verna have gotten themselves mixed up in a cult of sorts; the sort of cult that nurtures school bombers and shooters. Once this becomes clear, things spiral quickly out of control, and the pace picks up into a headlong rush towards some inevitable final showdown. There are no heroes here, and while it’s difficult to like any of the characters, Braffet makes sure we know where our sympathies lie, so that we become completely engrossed in the story, and completely invested in following these people to whatever bitter end is in store for them.
Save Yourself is dark, but not heavy-going, despite the heavy themes it examines: alcoholism, depression, outsiders and cults. There are some startling parallels with father-in-law Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie (minus the supernatural elements), in the themes Braffet examines. And anyone who has found themselves engrossed in Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine or Gus van Sant’s beautiful 2003 film Elephant will revel in the deconstruction of the psychology of young people, and the examination of what causes them to snap and head off to school, or the mall, or the cinema with an automatic weapon in their backpack.
Beautiful and elegant, Save Yourself is one of the darkest books I’ve had the pleasure to read this year. Braffet is a skilled writer who manages to draw the reader into her world without ever showing her full hand. It builds slowly to a shocking climax that, despite the inherent faults of the people involved, still manages to touch us, and gives us plenty of food for thought. This is one of this year’s quiet winners, a book that seems to be huge across the Atlantic but which has yet to find its audience here in the UK. It’s only a matter of time. Kelly Braffet, rising star, is definitely one to watch for the future and, if you haven’t read it yet, Save Yourself should be on your list of books to read in the New Year.