Goodness sakes. This is a tough book, of a sort. It is not just like Kimmel’s other books. It is highly academic, religiously explorative, and takes place in Indiana, yes, but it is pretty dark and trippy, falling down a sort of well into ancient Greece (think the dark side of mythology) while standing planted all the time in Indiana in the 1980s (and flashbacks a few decades). I would say this: it’s a psychological thriller with a splash of horror. Not slasher (quite), but creepy and dark. Like psychological thriller, horror, and literary fiction had a baby. (Humor me.)
Trace Pennington and Ianthe Covington are the same person. Trace is the little girl growing up with a mother she fears (and may be abusive) and a father she more than adores, a step-father who definitely abuses her, a sister who stands back and watches, and a brother who tries, unsuccessfully to save her. Ianthe is the brilliant, goth college student who has begged, stolen, and borrowed her way to a new identity and lives in an abandoned house with her dog, Weeds. She is about to graduate summa cum laude with like 8,000 (sic) majors and minors, but then she meets a guy. The guy has his own secrets, his own trauma, and neither of them are talking. Both Trace and Ianthe have a best friend: Candy of the stable, childhood household, and the adulthood of kids, trailer, and alien abduction. The story follows Freud, Jung, Hillman, Greek mythology, alien abduction, and fairy tales down the rabbit hole to a violent, dark, confusing world of we-know-not-quite-what before the softly dramatic conclusion (when many of us are still scratching our heads).
I mean, if you are going to make it past the first line, you are going to be a certain type of reader, anyway. The infamous first line is: “I never / I never had sex with my father but I would have, if he had agreed.” That’s a doozy. And if you are going to continue, you better be paying close attention even now. Why the extra “I never?” We’re in first person, here. And we are neck-deep in classical Greek mythology, already. In some ways, this book reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s Till They Have Faces, a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth. I wondered, at times, if Ianthe’s story is a retelling of an ancient myth, or of several. Either way, Faces, one of my favorite books of all time, is dark but not this dark, and is nothing like this edgy. How did we go from A Girl Named Zippy through a sort of philosophy-religion-feminism trilogy to Iodine? Readers who enjoyed these other books are definitely not necessarily the readers who will like this one. And yet some of them love it. The official critics were a bit harsh, and yet there are a few of even those who sang its praises. (Like The LA Times, versus Kirkus and New York Times. Maybe this (and having a family) is what pushed Kimmel to take that really long breather from the public eye. It is her last published book, in 2008.) Is it overwrought? Is it imbalanced? Is it confusing as heck? It takes some work, for sure.
In the end, I think it’s not actually that difficult to figure out what has happened, if you just relax a bit and be willing to accept the falsity of most of what you have already read. And also that your interpretation might not be the “correct” one or the one someone else arrived at. However, there are indications (on discussion boards) that Kimmel meant for people to re-read this book, using clues (like physical tells, narrative hesitation, disappearance and confusion, names (like Ianthe and Trace; I mean, Billy means “resolute protection”), the presence of animals, and, I’m guessing, POV) and studying (for example, the chapter titles) in order to really understand what is happening. But since Kimmel won’t just come out and say, then is there a theory that is 100% correct, anyway? If the “answer” doesn’t officially exist out there (except in Kimmel’s head and maybe her files)? Are any of the characters more than one character? Are any of the characters not real? Are any of the characters gone? Is a complicated twist of any of these happening? In the small world of people who care, theories abound.
If you enjoy dark, trippy, twisty, and yet academically-heavy books, this is for you. Psycho-thriller + horror but not afraid of literary fiction? For you. Kimmel fan who is willing to read anything of hers, even though you might be a bit squeamish? For you. For anyone, this is another beautifully written, poetically conceived piece of literature. It explores either trauma, mental illness, or physical disorder (I’m not telling, maybe it’s all three), a cast of fascinating characters in 1980s Indiana academia and 1950-70s Indiana, and any number of other thought-provoking things (like, as I said, mythology, literature, psychology, alien abduction, as well as women/feminism, drugs, music, etc.). It’s a wild ride. I enjoyed it, though it is definitely on the creepy and violent side for me. Heck, read it with a book club. Then get together and ask, “Are Trace/Ianthe’s eyes really violet? How?” and the rest of your time will be a round-the-bush discussion of oh so many mysteries.
“’I plant, and then I kill. That is my dark gift’” (p130).
“Imagine people getting so worked up about flying saucers or cigars, when we can stand on terra firma and on our own two human feet and admire the light of stars that are no longer there. Isn’t that… weird enough?” (p212).
“There wasn’t a chance in this world he was going to suffer those indignities just to die harder and slower” (p217).