A little girl struggles to find love and salvation against terrifying odds in this debut novel.
Fair’s story centers on an
11-year-old girl named Nani, who, as the story opens, lives with her mother and
her mother’s boyfriend, Calvin Smith, who doesn’t “do nothing but shoot dope,
get drunk, beat me, and boss my mom around.” Nani at first thinks of
smooth-talking and charismatic Calvin as a kind of superhero, but that
attractive facade quickly falls away to reveal a violent man of ungovernable
rages. He makes life a hell of anxiety and fear for both Nani and her mother,
and things only get worse when Calvin’s 11-year-old son, Roger, comes to live
with them. Roger is every bit as terrified of Calvin as Nani and her mother
are, but he’s also predatory toward Nani, trying to take advantage of her
while she’s too innocent to know what he’s doing (“During that time in my
life,” the narrator tells us, “a part of me died too”). During a particularly
harrowing scene, Roger’s perversions are revealed to Calvin with sudden and
tragic consequences that underscore the chancy, dangerous world of Nani’s
childhood. As Calvin’s vicious temper grows steadily worse, life in that world
becomes the stuff of nightmares (“I wished my life was just a dream,” Nani
thinks, “and that I could wake up to find out that none of the bad things in it
had ever existed”). She seems doomed, but suddenly at school one day she meets
her “angel,” a fourth-grader named Danny Rogers. He protects her from bullies
and introduces her to his family (his father is a minister); for the first time
in her life, Nani feels accepted and loved. Fair casts her narrative in Nani’s
point of view, and the juxtaposition of the character’s youth and tragic
circumstances can make for some grippingly tough reading. At one point, Nani
barely survives a house fire (“My skin felt like a million fire ants were
biting me. My eyes were hurting and stinging. I thought I was going to die”).
After her prolonged ordeal with the drug-crazed Calvin, Nani’s redemption with
the Rogers family feels comparatively rushed and shallow. But by that point,
readers should forgive anything that gets her out of the inferno.
A taut and rewarding tale about a young girl’s
frightening life and last-minute rescue.