Author uncovers a dark night of the soul

Novel explores trauma in relationships and the search for healing and redemption

Posted 10/2/19

Whether they are visible or not, we all carry our wounds in our body -- a scar on our skin or a scar onour heart. When we are alone, we might be able to ignore it but in relationships, we are often …

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Author uncovers a dark night of the soul

Novel explores trauma in relationships and the search for healing and redemption

Posted

Whether they are visible or not, we all carry our wounds in our body -- a scar on our skin or a scar on our heart.

When we are alone, we might be able to ignore it but in relationships, we are often called to confront our suffering as others mirror our hurt. In Scott Archer Jones' new novel, "And Throw Away the Skins," his characters deal with the ramifications of their pain and the search for healing and redemption through relationships.

Bec is a breast cancer survivor. She had a double mastectomy, which left two thin scars across her leveled chest. Jones does not shy away from describing the physical sensations of Bec's trauma in a visit to the doctor, "They cranked the temperature down in the examination room. Frigid, and the gloves tacky, like a fly's feet. The Doctor palpitated her skins, her scars, her thin pads of pectoral muscle. At least his hands didn't feel warm or human. She couldn't have tolerated that, warm groping hands."

Up until recently, Bec had lived the life of a preacher's wife in an affluent megachurch in Dallas. But recognizing that her husband, William, is unhappy in their church, she encourages him to make a big life change. Joining the army to serve as a chaplain to troops on the front lines in Afghanistan is more than she anticipated. Bec is left to hold down the home front, but her husband's new job in the military doesn't pay what the old one did, and she is forced to sell the house and the cars and all of their belongings.

Bec has a backup plan. Long ago, she inherited a family cabin in the remote woods of Northern New Mexico. We learn through intermittent flashbacks that Bec's father was abusive to her and her mother and she bears a heavy hatred for him. In her childhood, he had shown her intolerance and cruelty, and she fortifies an emotional wall around her because of him. The cabin had always been her respite.

"Ten-year-old Rebecca wanted the summer so bad it burned inside her, smoldered away all year long. For six years, she and her momma had fit themselves into whatever truck her father allowed them, slammed the doors and closed him out like a bad dream, traveled the hours to reach the New Mexico cabin."

She hopes the cabin will be a safe place for her again. Jones writes, "The cabin's front porch had granted Bec hours of counseling, but no revelation. Sorting through, digging up her life with William resolved nothing -- just ended in a quiet view into the meadow's world. A world that needed no marriage, no answers, no humanity. She promised on her momma's grave she would stop obsessing and listen to the meadow's cue. Just be."

Although Bec envisions herself a stalwart hermit, she ends up a social butterfly. Bec quickly makes friends with the nearby fictional town of Santa Eulalia's eccentric characters and finds herself a reluctant though integral part of their community -- once a preacher's wife, always a preacher's wife.

Bec is surprised when her little cabin is bombarded with visitors, "Six women piled into her chairs and couch. They vibrated the old ceiling boards above with their voices -- dust trickled out of the cracks into the living room air. By the wood stove, Bec settled quiet and hunched over in a kitchen chair."

When Bec meets her husband in Croatia for a brief vacation, we soon learn that he has been incapable of being physically romantic with her since her mastectomy. He is seeing a therapist, trying to seek help, but he has an innate visceral response to scarring or wounds of any type. This makes his job working with wounded soldiers all the more ironic. But at least he doesn't have to kiss them.

Back in New Mexico, Bec meets one of her husband's wounded soldiers who comes to check up on her and decides to stay around. An enthusiastic and ambitious young man, Tony convinces Bec to start a Veterans Center on her property for injured soldiers. When the veterans start arriving with their missing limbs and disfigurements, Bec discovers kindred souls, like her, scarred inside and out. She soon begins questioning if she can continue being married to a man who does not accept her fully as she is but insists on her getting breast implants in order for him to be with her.

In her confusion, Bec falls for a Marine named Michael whose scars run far deeper than his missing legs. He's prone to mood swings and angry outbursts. Bec, a counselor by trade, tries to help him, but her feelings for him interfere and her passions get in the way.

The morning after an intimate night, Bec tries to cozy up to Michael, "The same man but different, the man that changed into darkness. Bec discovered Michael at the sink in the kitchen -- he stared out the small window at the dawn light. She slipped behind him, reached under his arms to hug his chest … He shuffled a half step to the side, rolled out of her grasp and clicked his way to the stove to pour coffee. When he faced her, she discovered that face again. Blank. He gazed at her, but without seeing." As winter grows cold and dark, the dark night of Bec's soul is forthcoming.

Jones has a beautiful way with language and a skilled understanding of the complexity of human pain. "And Throw Away the Skins" is not a light read. It deals with heavy issues of trauma. The cold mountain landscape and stark old cabin belies externally the distressing emotions of the characters.

Though there are some moments of lightness, particularly in the overbearing female characters that circle casually through the narrative, they are not enough to offset the gloom. At times, Bec's weaknesses might prove frustrating to the reader and her end resolve does not feel strong enough to offset the breadth of her mistakes. We can only hope that Bec's future is brighter though there isn't much indication that this should be expected.

Archer Jones is the author of Jupiter and Gilgamesh: A Novel of Sumeria and Texas and A Rising Tide of People Swept Away, among others.

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