September 21st, 2008


The Shallow End of the Pool

I've never read Adam-Troy Castro's work before, but as a multiple award nominee his name has been on my radar for years. He might be best known for his X-Men and Spider-Man novels, but he's got a lot of original books out there too. His latest release, which I just had the pleasure of reading, is The Shallow End of the Pool.

Castro's brutal novella, published by Creeping Hemlock Press, is basically one long, extended metaphor for the damage divorce does to children. Or, more accurately, how children can wind up being used as weapons in a nasty divorce, turned against one parent or the other, even turned against each other. What makes the novella so brutal is that Castro turns the emotional warfare real. Jen, the teenaged narrator, raised by her father after the divorce, and her twin brother Ethan, raised by her mother, are forced into gladiatorial combat in an old, empty swimming pool in the middle of the Las Vegas desert while their parents watch. The fight will settle old scores. If Jen wins, it means Daddy was right. If Ethan wins, it means Mommy was. The fight is to the death.

Castro makes a great authorial decision in not making Ethan not such a bad guy. In fact, he's quite nice to Jen, happy to be reacquainted with his twin sister after so many years, but Jen shows him no such kindness. Both have been training all their lives for this moment, and to show Ethan any kindness at all would be like admitting maybe Daddy lied about Mommy, maybe she's not such a monster after all. (The flashbacks to Jen's training sessions with Daddy are just as brutal; what he does to inure her to the possibility that Ethan will use rape as a weapon against her is monstrous. What we learn of Ethan's training with Mommy is no less disturbing.) Castro also shows much writerly wisdom in having much of the damage these two gladiators take come from their environment, rather than from their battle. The unrelenting, baking desert sun, radiating off the stark white walls of the empty pool, is as dangerous as a beating, maybe even more so. Dehydration is unavoidable.

You can pretty much guess what will happen at the end. There can be no satisfying tale of authoritarian injustice and abuse of power without comeuppance at the end. But getting there is half the fun. The Shallow End of the Pool is a very enjoyable story, and remarkably intelligent for something that could have simply been a "battle to death" gorefest with no depth or complexity. Instead, it's got a lot of heart and a lot of smarts. I enjoyed it immensely.