Many of us who love Lolita have its unforgettable first lines committed to memory: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three…” Using exquisite prose, Nabokov sketches in an extremely compelling manner the profile of a pedophile and his victim. Unlike many other psychological novels, he doesn’t turn tragedy into redemption and pathology into love. There’s nothing redeeming or redeemable about the sociopathic pedophile and his sick love for Lolita.
Anna Quindlen’s Black and Blue follows in Lolita‘s footsteps as a great work of psychological fiction. Psychological, because the author sketches in such a realistic fashion the profile of the abuser that I’m tempted to say her novel should be available in every domestic violence shelter under the category of “nonfiction.” And yet, one can’t forget that Black and Blue is above all a work of fiction, masterfully crafted. Its beginning echoes the first lines of Lolita, in fact, the novel which it resembles in style even more than in content:
“The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old. One sentence and I’m lost. One sentence and I can hear his voice in my head, that butterscotch-syrup voice that made goose bumps rise on my arms when I was young, that turned all of my skin warm and alive with a sibilant S, the drawling vowels, its shocking fricatives. It always sounded like a whisper, the way he talked, the intimacy of it, the way the words seemed to go into your gutys, your head, your heart.” (1)
The message of Black and Blue is similar to that of nonfiction books on dangerous men, which attempt to educate the public and empower the victims. Abusers are often charming. Abusers don’t usually begin intimate relationships with overt abuse. Abusers can be entrancing and romantic, at least at first, during the wooing phase. Abuse doesn’t get better; it escalates. Abusers push the limits of their victims’ tolerance, little by little, until they dominate their targets. Abuse is above all a power game. The abusers are generally narcissistic individuals who lack empathy and want total control. The victims, however, aren’t necessarily weak or passive. They can be strong and loving men and women, like Frannie Benedetto. Abuse is a tragedy without a silver lining.
It’s one thing to read this familiar message in self-help books and pamphlets and quite another to feel it in a great work of fiction. From the very first lines, Black and Blue gets under your skin. It reveals the mindset of both abuser and abused. It traces the emotional scars of the child or children who have to endure these sad family dynamics. “My son scarcely ever cries. And his smile comes so seldom that it’s like bright sunshine on winter snow, blinding and strange.” (26) Such beautiful language for such ugly facts… Perhaps this is the best way to bring the abuse to life for others. Above all, Black and Blue puts you in the shoes of all those who have the courage to run away from it without ever looking back.
Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon