Thursday, March 10, 2016

Shallow Graves by Kali Wallace

17 year old Breezy is on the cusp of adulthood.  She's about to graduate high school and has made plans to follow her dream to become an astronaut.  The future looks bright until she takes a fateful walk home and wakes up a year later in her own shallow grave.  Birds fall out of the sky announcing Breezy's return and she kills the man who helps her crawl out of the grave.  Breezy knows that she cannot go home but has no plan about what to do now and so she hitchhikes across country, performing experiments to see just how indestructible she is now. Breezy's life might have gone on that way if she had not run into a group of religious zealots determined to rid the world of its monsters.

Wallace jumps right into this story with little set up about what is going on. This is a little bit disconcerting at first but presents a challenge to figure out exactly what is going on with Breezy. Shallow Graves is told completely from Breezy's perspective which gives us an inside track into what she is thinking.  Normally, I'm not overly fond of young protagonists but in this case, Breezy certainly didn't read like the seventeen year old that Wallace set her up to be.  Breezy was thoughtful, curious, analytical and very smart. Even though Dark Graves is an incredibly dark story, I found myself genuinely liking Breezy and her penchant for killing murderers.

Wallace has set up Shallow Graves as a one off and that's really a shame.  I feel as though she left a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the book, leaving it feeling somewhat unfinished. Part of the problem is that Wallace seemed to keep switching directions in the story.  First, we have Breezy kidnapped by a religious cult who are convinced that the so-called monsters are all evil and must be eradicated to protect humanity.  Breezy manages to make her escape with a Nightmare and learns that monsters are simply part of nature and have been labelled as monsters because humanity is afraid of that which it doesn't understand.  Breezy happens to then shack up with a pair of gouls who are brothers but she is plagued by the idea that the darkness which is inside her can be removed.  Breezy then heads off to see what the cult calls mother and learns that one must really be careful what one wishes for.  Breezy then decides that has to deal with the person who killed her.

Unfortunately, Shallow Graves also meanders around. I am fine with a story not having a linear narrative but having a non linear narrative and then repeating knowledge just a few pages later is irksome to say the least.  It felt as though Wallace was trying to draw out Shallow Graves so that he would be longer than a short story.  This problem could easily have been solved if Shallow Graves didn't skitter about the place and if it had invested more in world building.  We learn that Breezy is a revenant, that humans can do magic but it requires a death and that there are multiple creatures coexisting with humanity.  We learn nothing about how magical creatures are organized, or any of their history.  Even Breezy's interactions with ghouls doesn't make much sense.  Why exactly do they feel compelled to help and shelter her?  Why do they care where she ends up? Why do they advise her?  They know nothing about her and barely understand what she is but there the brothers are playing tour guide of the monster world and functioning as a convenient taxi when needed.  So much more could have been done with these characters and instead what we got was repetition about Breezy being dead, not knowing how it happened and her death count.

Shallow Graves is the first book that I've read in a long time to have a marginalized protagonist. Breezy is both a woman of colour and bisexual.  Breezy is half Chinese but Wallace includes no real cultural markers to her character.  I did find it a bit stereotypical that Breezy had no problems with math and science but struggled with humanities; however, that being said, it informed her personality in a way that I haven't seen in some time.  While Breezy's experiments in suicide reminded too much of Heroes (save the cheerleader save the world) how she used scientific anecdotes to explain her feelings and how the world viewed her is great. Even before Breezy became a revenant, as much as Breezy was interested in science, mathematics and space, she was always interested in death.

Breezy however does experience racism.  When she goes to a party at the Fordhams, Mrs. Fordham asks her daughter, "Why don't you ask that nice Oriental girl to help you study? They're very good at school, you know.  It's a part of their culture" Despite how extremely offensive this comment is, Breezy doesn't respond to the woman at all. On a page concerning Breezy's disappearance, someone writes, "Ran away with an older boyfriend, maybe she promised to love him long time, get it, it's just a joke, don't be so easily offended."  Since this is just a comment online, Breezy doesn't really have the opportunity to respond.  This however makes two instances of racist commentary where Breezy is silent and in fact, expresses no opinion on what it feels like to be targeted with hate speech. Unfortunately, the only time racism is called out is falsely.  When Rain confronts Zeke about his hatred of humans, she calls him a racist.  Zeke fearing humans is rational, particularly given that humans have a history of hunting down people like him and killing them without warning or cause.

Breezy's only actual lovers in Shallow Graves are male.  Wallace does mention that Breezy develops a crush on her mother's colleague and that when Breezy kisses her best friend, she gets slapped across the face for her trouble. Jake, the only other GLBT character in this story gets punched in the face when he tries to kiss a another guy.  Yes, LGBT people face a lot of violence in this world but would it have been so hard, to have Jake be in a loving relationship, or have something positive to say about the men that he has dated?

Gender is where I think that Shallow Graves really is a winner.Wallace does a great job explaining how slut shaming works and how easily people use rape culture to justify violence against women. When Breezy has sex for the first time, she is quickly slut shamed by the guy she slept with while he receives absolutely zero social sanction. The guy in question talks about how Breezy begged him to introduce her to his friends. Though Breezy denies this, his version is widely accepted as truth and tired of repeating a truth that won't be listened to, she instead attacks the size of his penis and how long he lasted during sex.  People were willing to listen to stories about his virility but refused to concede that if she is a slut for sleeping with him, then he is a slut for sleeping with her. It's a classic example of the he's a stud she's a slut trope. In fact, many people use the occasion of her death to attack her because she was no longer there to defend herself.  The most telling moment of the story however talks about how we treat men and women differently.
News articles talk about what a surprise it is, that such a nice young man could do such a thing.. Surely it was an accident. They mourn his lost potential, his lost track scholarships, how tragic it is that one night ruined his entire life. They write articles and have meetings warning teenage girls about the dangers of drinking and partying. Nobody writes articles telling teenage boys not to stalk and kill girls who don’t like their stupid adolescent poetry. Maybe they mourn me, as an afterthought, but I’m already gone. It’s too late for me to matter. 
In this passage, Wallace explores the fact that women are responsible for their own safety while men are never actively encourage not to turn women into prey.  When they do cross the line, if they come from a specific background and have so-called promise, the woman's violation just becomes a misfortune, a horrible mark against his potential rather than an extreme crime.  This passage had me thinking about the Stubenville rape case, where an entire community was more concerned about the prospects of its high school football players than the right of a young girl not to be raped.

Shallow Graves is really a mixed bag.  A young revenant walking around trying to find out how she fits into the world and what the difference is between living and existing is interesting. Unfortunately, a lot of the conflict came from Breezy getting involved in the problems of the side characters and none of that really went anywhere.  The writing at times is extremely repetitive and reduced some of the enjoyment I had at Breezy's unique character.  I really hope that Wallace writes a second book involving Breezy because it feels as though the journey has just begun.