Thursday, November 28, 2019

Book 209: My Name Is Venus Black



"In time, he'd discover that I'm not unlike the planet I'm named for. At a great distance, Venus is beautiful, the brightest of stars in the sky. But what NASA discovered when they orbited her is that she's actually an inhospitable planet, a boiling cauldron of poisonous gases. Come too close and you'd fry."

Dates read: February 15-19, 2018

Rating: 3/10

When my sister was only a month or two old, I tried to throw her away. True story! I announced to my mom that she was useless because she wouldn't stop crying, and tried to bargain that if we couldn't throw her away, couldn't we at least return her to the hospital? We fought like crazy growing up, but once I went to college we started to get along better and she's one of my best friends now. There's nothing quite like the bond between siblings.

Of course, this isn't everyone's experience (although it is the experience of quite a few people I know with brothers and sisters). Some people become estranged. Some are just never close with their siblings. And others have been close their whole lives. Venus Black, eponymous heroine of Heather Lloyd's My Name Is Venus Black, falls into the last category. Though her brother Leo is six years her junior and is autistic (since the book is set in the 80s, he's described as having "special needs", but he's clearly on the spectrum), and is only technically her half-brother, Venus adores him and nurtures him. But her ability to take care of him is forever changed when, at 13, she commits a serious crime. We're not sure what it is at first, the book opens in medias res while Venus is confronting her mother at the police station, being interviewed after it happens. It becomes clear pretty quickly that "it" is that she's shot and killed her stepfather. Why, though, takes a long time to come out.

Only shortly after Venus commits the murder, Leo is kidnapped by his small-time-crook of an uncle out of the backyard of a friend of his mother's. Venus is devastated when she hears that he's gone, even trying to flee from pre-trial detention to look for him. But her escape attempt is foiled, and she's sent to juvenile lock-up until she's an adult. When she gets out, she wants to just take on a new identity and keep her head down and try to figure out a way to get her brother back. She gets a job as a waitress under an assumed name, rents a room, and is trying to save up to go to California. But she can't really escape her past...a promising flirtation becomes risky when she finds out he's a cop and might be able to discover who she really is, and eventually her mother tracks her down too. When they get a lead on Leo, though, everything changes.

By the time this review goes live, this book will have been out for well over a year, so I don't feel bad about the fact that I'm about to "spoil" the "why-dunnit". If you'd like to remain in the dark, stop reading. I'm mostly going to spill it because the book builds up to it like it's some kind of revelation and honestly it is not at all: Venus killed her stepdad because he was peeping at her though a hole in the wall. She tells her mother, and her mother does nothing about it. It makes the rage she feels at her mother feel justified and there's absolutely no reason it needs to be hidden in the back third of the book. It's a terrible plotting decision to bury it, but that's only one in a series of bad decisions Lloyd makes in her debut novel. The characters she draws are paper-thin (with the exception of Leo, who I'll get to next) and feel not-at-all real. Venus and Leo's mother is a terrible person, but Lloyd makes her a struggling alcoholic in a way that feels like it's supposed to give her sympathy (it fails, she's still a shitty parent). There's some weird religious overtones that come out of nowhere in the end of the book and it feels shoehorned and unearned. And the ethnicity of a supporting character is constantly referenced in a way that makes it feel almost fetishistic.

The sole bright spot, really, is the portion of the story around Leo. Lloyd's ability to convey both Leo's intelligence and his limitations, the way he does love the people in his life but has a hard time expressing it in a way that they understand, is deft and well-realized. Unfortunately, that's literally the only thing that worked for me in this book. The plot is uneven, the prose competent but uninspired, the characters mostly don't work. It's not even a matter of needing a better editor...there's a story here that could be interesting, but nearly everything would need to be completely revamped to give it the telling it would need to really connect. This is a poor quality book and I don't recommend it to anyone.

One year ago, I was reading: Messy (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Hate U Give

Three years ago, I was reading: Freakonomics

Four years ago, I was reading: All The King's Men

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