I first encountered ‘Believe Like A Child‘ by Paige Dearth at my favorite bookstore. It’s my favorite bookstore because they sometimes would have special books that might not necessarily be on the best-seller list. And of course, the first thing that caught my eyes was the cover. And they say a picture tells a thousand word. It’s really a stunning cover picture. When I flipped it to read the back of the book, I became instantly intrigued. As the picture already let on, it’s a story about child abuse. But the thing that made me buy it was the fact that the author was a victim of child abuse herself. So I was expecting a fictional story but with hints of real emotions inserted here and there. I was expecting it to be very hard to stomach and raw but at the same time insightful, powerful and also has a hopefully bittersweet ending that would fill the reader with hope despite the dark and tragic topic. It got a 4.14/5 stars on Goodreads, which I really struggle to comprehend. Not because it was too low, but because it was way higher than I expected. As you might already suspect from my intro, this is not going to be a positive review. I actually contemplate whether to write a review of it at all, and it’s precisely because of its high score on Goodreads, it inspired me to dive deeper into the vast sea of materials that build up a good story. I apologize in advance if this turns into more of an essay about good story-telling than a book review.
First, I have to tell you what kind of a reader I am. I would say I’m an easy one. English being my third language, I give a lot of slag to the structure of writing, aka I don’t mind it to be simple. From time to time I do enjoy books aimed at young teens. But it does make me feel good to read something elegant, writing that is complicated but not so much so it would require me to whip out a dictionary. Authors who use overly rare or complicated words in the midst of otherwise simple surrounding can be annoying, it simply screams ‘I own a thesaurus’. But the other extreme end is no good either, cos I find overusing of any words super annoying. That is, among many other things, one of the biggest sins of books such as ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. They make you want to snap the thesaurus out of the first group of writers’ hands and then proceed to throw it at the second group and tell them to use it. 😛 Okay, fine, maybe I am picky about writing. I like to feel smart, sue me.
Second, I love stories. Like stories within stories. I live for them. Aka I enjoy the classic structure of a story. It starts with a scene-setting, then goes to the build-up and then the climax and then a satisfactory ending. I stress on satisfaction because I don’t care much about happy endings, especially those without sacrifice. In longer novels, I prefer storytelling as a method to get to know the main characters. Like a story about their past, or a memory, or any story at all. It is the most effective since you get to know them by the way they tell the stories, the words they use, or the effect the story had on them. I don’t know about other readers, but I absolutely hate to be told what to think by the author. And that is the biggest sin of ‘Believe Like A Child’.
Let me explain what I mean by being told what to think by the author. It took me a long time to figure what Paige Dearth’s writing style reminded me of, but when I finally figured it out, I couldn’t shake it. She writes a very adult subject matter like one would write a children’s book. Every single thing is spelled out. The main character Alessa’s every thought and emotion were explained plainly, as-a-matter-of-factly, but it’s not a book written in the first person. And it’s not just Alessa, all the other characters’ emotion and feelings are spelled out too and sometimes all mashed up in the same paragraph. It seemed like that the author failed to realize that even when written in the third person, with the so-called god-like all knowing writer’s hand, one simply can’t jump from one person’s point of view to another in the same sentence. It’s utterly confusing, because more than once I was left wondering whether the characters know about each other’s feelings. Plus it was almost insulting to the reader’s intelligence that absolutely nothing is left for the reader to figure out. Nothing was open to interpretation. It’s literally like a children’s book because it was like reading the writing aimed at kids who don’t have the social and mental capacity to understand human nature and basic human emotions. The weirdest thing was, after spelling out the characters’ every emotion and what they mean, I don’t have one single clear picture about what the characters were actually like. I was told what to think, thus I failed to paint my own picture. You can’t just tell me that someone is brave in a novel. You need to convince me of that by showing me brave things that a character does or says.
Getting to know main characters in a novel is of course very important. Because I need to know them in order to care about what happened to them. And especially with a subject matter like child abuse, it’s even more crucial. Unfortunately, I have no idea what Alessa is really like, and while the telling of the molestation itself was horrible to read, it didn’t strike the core in me. It was like reading the newpaper, the recount of the incidents was distant and almost nonchalant. And nonchalant is the clearest emotion I got from Alessa later in the book. I guess it was meant to be a protection mechanism, but when Alessa uses her abuse as weapon to win an argument, it doesn’t inspire much empathy in me. It sounds absolutely terrible, but it was almost like she was using it as a bragging right.
So, I suffer through more than 400 pages reading about characters I don’t care about one bit. One can only hope that the story was at least good. Well, it wasn’t. It was unrealistic in many instances, and frustrating, and didn’t give me any satisfaction when some long awaited confrontation finally occurred. And in most part, it was actually pretty boring. The story was anything but smooth. It severely lacked substance and you can tell because the story villainizes almost everyone that Alessa encountered. Some villains were legit but others are just idiotic, and as it turned out, in the end, it didn’t matter one bit. So all the drama I suffered through was for absolutely nothing at all. Just to fill the pages I guess.
And how about the ending, you ask. I usually put too much weight on the ending of everything, I don’t like that about myself but that’s who I am. For me, a good ending can save an otherwise terrible story, but a horrible ending can contaminate even the best of stories. Yes, How I Met Your Mother, I am looking at you. So, imagine a horrible ending after you suffered through a terrible story. Yup. The grand final was very predictable, and it completely wipes out the tiny bit of character growth you thought happened but didn’t really and the little I thought I got Alessa figured out, well that went the fuck out of the window too in the end. It might sound harsh, but this book was a complete waste of my time. And I can’t stop thinking what kind of message this story left on readers who are abuse survivors… or what kind of message the author, an abuse victim herself, want to give out. Cos for me, the message was as follow: the world is cruel, get used to it; no you don’t get a break; hope and happiness are fleeting as fuck, don’t get used to it; you probably won’t learn anything anyway; so when things get tough again, you would just give up cos you don’t really care, not really. There is nothing in this world that I despise more than abuse of any sort. Especially a subject matter as heavy as child abuse, it really deserves better-written story that would inspire hope instead of despair.
My Goodreads rating: 1 out of 5 stars