Sorrow by Catherine Gammon

by Catherine Gammon
Braddock Avenue Books, 2013
304 pages

Sorrow: a novel that surprises in the way that it waits. It waits for a good long time before surprising readers with the snake that springs out to grab with its fangs. This snake isn’t the poisonous kind, per se, but more like the boa constrictor that bites and then squeezes and squeezes and waits.

Anita is a grown woman living with her mother in an apartment in New York City in a building whose residents are familiar with one another in ways you won’t expect. Cruz Garcia, the building’s maintenance man, is in love with Anita, but denies himself sexual acknowledgment. Tomás is Cruz’s nephew from El Salvador who came into the U.S. to send money to his family, but also falls in love with Anita. Magda Ramirez is the Colombian widow who is a mere forty years old but has denied herself happiness since her husband’s murder who goes on to find joy in sickness. Each tenant comes with a dark past that affects each and every day of their lives, especially Anita. When her mother is murdered, the tenants must take care of the suffering daughter left behind and make up their own minds about what really happened.

At first, I was uncertain as to where the novel was going. The beginning pages describe Anita’s co-worker whom she makes uncomfortable. However, he’s not seen again. The really important parts don’t come until around page 70. Before that, I admit I felt lost and kept waiting for something to happen. Anita lays around a lot and thinks about killing her mother. I wasn’t certain as to why for quite some time. There seems to be little to know about Anita, or her mother. We’re not told why a grown woman is living with her mother, who is able-bodied, instead of married or dating. The novel would have done just as well without many of these 70 pages of what I felt was idling.

It’s difficult to discuss Gammon’s novel because it’s unclear what is a “spoiler” versus what the novel is about. Braddock Avenue’s synopsis describes the tenants of Anita’s building and claims the novel is “gripping.” Pittsburgh Magazine writes very little about Sorrow, claiming, “To disclose more about the plot would be a disservice to the reader.” I’m going to go out there on a limb and say that this book has more about sexual abuse–and it is described in greater detail–than any other book I’ve ever encountered. The way it affects both abused and abuser emotionally. The things people do to balance their lives as a result of that abuse. The way outsiders respond to abused and abuser.

At one point Anita is sucking her thumb and holding her hand over her vagina and anus because she’s worried that the effects of the abuse–the poison it’s left inside her–will get out. This is when I couldn’t stop thinking about the novel. I know people who have been abused. I know those who have been abusers. I’ve never thought about the realness of it to which Gammon exposed me. Here is where I began reading faster and more regularly. The author makes what is unnatural to many seen normal, and what is normal seem corrosive.

If you can get through the first part of the novel knowing that things will become intense enough for three novels, and if you hang on during the letter Anita receives from a man in prison who becomes a bit too reflective (and I think the point of view changes, but I’m not sure why) and you come out on the other side, then you will not forget this novel.

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