Carolyn Zaikowski’s novel A Child is Being Killed (Aqueous Books, 2013) is brief, often poetic, and a cerebral look into the life of a girl who has been given by her father to a man named Corey, whom she is forced to marry, in order to create business liaisons. At one point, the novel hints that the girl is 15, but the information that enters her world is scattered and quickly delivered, for she is mostly kept in a closet to be raped by Corey and his friends. Later, Corey moves the girl to the attic and gives her a dog. She is taken to a lab (and possibly experimented on; this is where the book becomes a bit surreal). The girl claims to have a friend in a man named Zaster, whom we meet occasionally, and Consuelo, a woman who works as an assistant to the girl’s father, but who also falls in love with the girl. I refer to her as “the girl” because she is that–a child–but she is also stripped of her identity. First, she is Jalamar, then she is told she will be called Addy, and then she mutates into a second persona named Shrap.
It is the divisions of personality that demonstrate that Zaikowski is breaking the girl down as a result the violence forced on her. Shrap is the more “hearty” character, the one who can help the girl live outside of her body while it is repeatedly being violated. The name is a secret that only those the girl loves, which includes her dead mother and eventually Consuelo, can know. What Zaikowski is doing is not unheard of, but Shrap is unique in that she is not much braver or strong-willed than the girl; she seems more like a substitute so that the girl doesn’t have to be herself while she is being killed:
“Shrap’s been destroyed before being born. All that’s left now is her body, and you’re content to destroy that too. Shrap will never really die, but no matter what happens, you will always be killing her….Shrap can be physically manipulated and maybe even physically destroyed, but she will always be alive and well, in an untouchable place above and beyond you.”
The author also makes some clever allusions throughout her novel, one of them being to the importance of literacy and creating malcontent slaves. When the girl was a person with a name, she was allowed to read books–allowed. Since books educate and get people thinking about the justice and fairness of their situations, Corey takes them away from Shrap. She remembers:
“He opened the closet door as wide as it would go and put [the books] down in front of me, just beyond the threshold. Some of them he ripped dramatically, but he got tired and threw the rest into the fireplace on the other side of the room. I watched the cremation of Madame Bovary, The Little Princess, Leaves of Grass, and a lot of Shakespeare. I could still smell the word inferno after he locked me back in.
There are also allusions to Cinderella that quickly establishes the girl more kind and everyone else more horrible. The girl’s best friends are animals, namely a rat she finds in the closet and the lab rats that she discovers later when she is taken to be experimented on (I think). Kindness toward an animal that is typically extinguished without question creates parallels between the animal and the girl, as she is being extinguished each day. When the girl and Consuelo plan to free the lab rats, they also work as a metaphor for releasing the girl. It is only when Consuelo lies that she can get the girl away from Corey and her father.
At times, when the novel is more surreal, such as scenes that take place in the lab, I wasn’t sure if Zaikowski was creating an elaborate second world that the girl creates to make sense of her abuse. Is the lab/experimenting actually the girl in the attic and men raping her while others stand by and do nothing? Because the setting of the lab is more blurry than concrete, I tended to assume it was a cerebral experience and had no difficulty following the story.
The only problem with the lab’s realness is Consuelo, whom the girl meets in the lab. Consuelo seems more like a dream than a flesh-and-blood woman. She is kind to the girl and seems to know what is happening to her (the rape, the experiments), but doesn’t contact the authorities to make it stop. Instead, Consuelo and the girl fall in love and plan to free the lab rats, a far less pressing issue that the girl’s own situation, except the rats are most likely a metaphor for the girl anyway.
The repeated violations of the girl’s body and spirit are kept at a distance from the reader when Zaikowski doesn’t describe the many rape scenes that are the result of Corey charging his friends for access to the girl, or times Corey is beating her. However, these scenes are also closer than a reader might expect when the girl asks about what is happening to her, presumably while it is happening:
“Your faces, a bunch of paintings to be slashed with a knife. I want to know, am I supposed to ask, are you happy? If not, did you get your money back? Is your payment pending for these services or is the deal wrapped up? I am not supposed to ask: Would you like a receipt with my blood on it? With my phlegm? Do you ever see through anyone else’s eyes? Do you get scared, excited, repelled? Do you see better? More clearly? Do you understand anything about anything? Are you alive? What happens to the rest of us if you are not, if you are in an iceberg, an impenetrable border?”
By staying out of the action and remaining in the girl’s head, Zaikowski effectively takes the story away from the rapist and gives it back to the victim to analyze and tell.
Overall, A Child is Being Killed effectively tells a story of removing the brain from the body to survive. The story doesn’t focus on the graphic nature of violence, but the cerebral coping mechanisms that a victim can create while maintaining her humanity and deep love for life.
You can read more of Zaikowski’s thoughts about her writing in my previous interview with the author.