Fiction – paperback; Granta; 208 pages; 2015.
Some books leave a strange but memorable aftertaste on your reading palette, and Katherine Faw Morris’s debut novel, Young God, certainly does that. This may be a thin volume, but it brims with menace and sparkles with shameless in-your-face shocks, which arrive one after the other. It’s a story that gets under the skin and leaves an indelible mark. And they’re the kinds of stories I like best.
Life on the margins
The story goes something like this… When her mother dies, Nikki, a sassy, street-smart 13-year-old, moves in with her father to avoid social security putting her in care. Her father, Coy Hawkins, lives in a trailer in the woods with his 15-year-old girlfriend, Angel, whom he pimps out.
Coy was once the biggest coke dealer in the county, but he now seems to use drugs rather than sell them, a fact that shocks Nikki when she presents him with a bag of 500 “Roxies” — the opiate Roxicodone — which she stole from her mother’s boyfriend, Wesley.
She expected him to sell them first. Call somebody. However that works. Nikki didn’t snort any. Angel’s nodding on the couch. Coy Hawkins is slumped in a reclining chair. Nikki stands at its foot, completely alert.
Somewhere along the line Nikki understands that if she’s to avoid being pimped out, she must make a living elsewhere, and so she turns to the local drug trade, where she begins selling “black tar” heroin for one dollar a milligram. It is, needless to say, a rather sordid and dangerous business, but Nikki seems unaware of the consequences.
Living in this messy world, where life is cheap and teenage girls are merely sexual objects for older men to play with, Nikki holds her own, but it’s not a life that offers any kind of hope or fulfilment.
By turns shocking and stomach-churning, Young God lifts the lid on an impoverished underclass living on the margins of society. It’s a dark, brutal, cut-throat existence, no place for anyone let alone an uneducated 13-year-old girl, who’s just lost her mother. But Nikki is not the kind of character that invokes pity: she’s headstrong, determined, full of life and willing to rush headlong into new experiences.
Short, sharp, snappy prose
I read this book, mostly with my heart in my mouth, wondering what wretched, violent thing was going to happen next. It’s a gritty story full of sleaze and sex, where characters perform base acts to numb the pain of existence. On every page there’s something to shock or to stun the reader, but it doesn’t feel manipulative or gratuitous — everything is there to inform the story, to lend it an air of authenticity, to show you how cheap life is for those who live their lives like this. It makes for a deeply unsettling reading experience.
The prose style — short, sharp, snappy — mirrors the starkness of the subject matter, but reads like the rawest of poetry. This is also reinforced by the creative use of white space in which a single sentence or a short paragraph occasionally stands alone on a whole page:
When I came to the end of this novel, which I read in one frenzied sitting unable to tear my eyes from the disturbing story unfolding before me, I felt wrung out. Young God is a thrilling, eye-opening read, and not one that is easy to forget…