Swati Avasthi’s debut, SPLIT, begins where other novels might end: with a teenage runaway who has finally escaped his abusive father’s fists.
Sixteen-year-old Jace Witherspoon seemingly has it all: looks, charm, athletic prowess, and a popular girlfriend to boot. But the dark secret he has been hiding is that inside the walls of their beautiful home in their affluent Chicago neighborhood, Jace’s father --- a respected judge, no less --- has been physically and emotionally abusing Jace and his mother for years.
At 16, Jace has finally done the unthinkable: he has hit his father back. Now, there is nowhere for Jace to go except to leave home in search of his estranged older brother, Christian. The only help he has are an old envelope with an address in Albuquerque, New Mexico scribbled on it and $3.84 in his pockets. And a terrible truth about himself that only his ex-girlfriend knows.
When Jace finds Christian, they must work as a team to piece together and understand their shared history. After all, Christian had escaped their father’s clutches and created a secret new life and identity for himself when Jace was only a young boy. What Christian had not known is how much Jace --- now the new target of their father’s rage --- had longed for his idolized big brother to come back to rescue him. But Christian never did. Instead, here Jace was, hoping that Christian would at least take him in when there was nowhere else to go.
As Jace gingerly tries to find a footing in Christian’s life and home, the two young men must come to terms with the fact that their shared abuse at the hands of their father does not necessarily make them well-suited to building a life together.
Jace, raw and emotional from his recent experiences, holds on to the dream of building a happy home in which he and his brother live with their mother after they rescue her from their father. Jace wants to learn to cook in time for Thanksgiving since his mother had promised she would be in Albuquerque by then. He’s hoping to prepare the perfect Thanksgiving meal for the three of them to symbolize how much better their lives will be now.
But Christian, older and more wary, is not so sure their mother is ever going to leave her husband for her sons. And he is even less certain that he wants to live with any member of his family again. He has built a new life for himself from the ashes of his old one --- with a bright and supportive girlfriend (albeit one he has kept many secrets from), a busy career ahead of him as a doctor, and most importantly, a temperament that is as different from their abusive father’s as one could get.
As Jace’s connection to the past he can’t entirely escape --- and his fear that he and his father are more alike than he can bear to acknowledge --- threaten to catapult him backward from his new life into the one he left behind, Jace must learn to come to terms with how his past has shaped him and how he can prevail in spite of the heavy odds against him.
Swati Avasthi has written an engrossing page-turner of a novel on a most unlikely subject. She has used her experience working at a domestic abuse shelter to create an interesting and believable story centered on domestic violence and its aftereffects on the survivors of such violence.
SPLIT features nuanced and sensitively drawn portraits of Jace and Christian, along with their abusive father and entrapped mother. Every character, down to the minor ones, is so well-sketched and multidimensional that his or her every action and dialogue feels believable to the reader. There are strong female leads in Christian’s girlfriend, Mirriam, and Jace’s new love interest, Dakota.
Avasthi writes so deftly that it is hard to believe this is only her first book. The fast pace balances the difficult topic of domestic abuse well, keeping the story from becoming emotionally draining while still retaining its power. She does an excellent job of educating the reader about abuse in the home without ever breaking the pace of the story or resorting to lecturing the reader. SPLIT is a remarkable young adult novel, and I hope to read more of Avasthi’s writing for many years to come.
Reviewed by Usha Reynolds on March 9, 2010