Clemons’ (Soft Daggers, 2013, etc.) novel takes a harrowing journey into the mind of an abusive foster mother.
When Tristan becomes a foster parent for her half brother Ethan’s children, it ostensibly starts as a gesture of grace as Ethan rehabilitates from drug addiction, but soon plunges her into resentment and violent anger. She quickly starts to believe that the kids—Ellen, Jordan, Henry, Max and 16-month-old Megan—are intolerably encroaching on her marriage to Zach. Little Megan, in particular, bears the brunt of her fury; she’s routinely hit, force-fed scalding food and left to sit in her own waste. Tristan convinces doctors that Megan is withering away from an unidentifiable disease, but readers know the truth: Megan’s bruises are from Tristan’s assaults, and the blood collecting in the corners of Megan’s lips is from Tristan scraping the roof of her mouth with a feeding spoon. Zach doesn’t want to believe that the woman he married is a monster, so he deludes himself into not seeing what’s happening. Eventually, Megan dies from the constant torment (“Tristan reared back and punched the baby in the head...”), and Tristan faces both physical and mental punishment as a result. Clemons’ vivid descriptions of horrific scenes ring true and will likely create genuine discomfort for readers. However, aside from Megan’s abuse, there isn’t very much plot; the other children, for example, are given a few scenes but disappear for pages at a time. Zach never evolves as a character, and the rest of the supporting cast similarly comes off as flat. In addition, the chapter titles often telegraph upcoming plot points; for example, Megan dies in a chapter titled “Death Comes to an Angel: Everyone Knows.”
A gruesome but underdeveloped portrait of child abuse.