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Tabula Rasa

The Grief Hole

By Kaaron Warren, IFWG Publishing Australia, 2016

A Review by Kyla Lee Ward

"Each monster has only one way to die. There are no rules. You need to know the monster to kill it…"

At age twenty-four, Theresa was a social worker, helping women to escape abuse. She was described as "a born counsellor", "Saint Theresa". But then she made the decision that landed her in hospital and a client in the morgue. Guilt chases her from her task, because like the protagonist of Warren's first novel, Slights (Angry Robot, 2009), Theresa is haunted, but not by the ghosts of the dead. Cruelly, she sees the ghosts of those who are not yet dead, whom she may be able to save.

The burden of talent is a strong theme throughout this book. The way the Sight manifests amongst the women of Theresa's family has fractured it, erecting walls where understanding and acceptance were required. But her cousin Amber was an artistic genius, able to express the inner soul of a subject in her paintings. When Theresa goes to work for her uncle, seeking a way to heal, she discovers that the talent that should have brought Amber fame instead brought her to the attention of a predator, a collector with a ghastly gift of his own.

Warren's talent as a writer involves twists of perception. She evokes the utterly familiar and ordinary, even the pleasant, then reveals the horror which was always there, only you could not see it. Or refused to, like the people on the street outside the shelter, as Theresa was stabbed and bashed. Theresa's refusal to look away is driven by an older, worse guilt and possibly by something else--the something that sees her brooding over news clippings of accidents and hideous crimes. If she goes up against this monster, does she risk becoming another victim or something worse?

"They need help and you are the best monster to help them."

This is the classical hero's dilemma and The Grief Hole is a katabasis, a hero's descent into the underworld, of appalling detail, intensity and subtlety. The would-be suicides seeking the release of Paradise Falls have a decision to make and a threshold to cross, but the reader is eased almost undetectably into the great below, where creatures like the Lacemaker manifest with no more fuss than Theresa's workmates. The musician Sol Invictus is a remarkable creation, unutterably repellent yet with all the charisma and potency his modus operandi requires. In Theresa herself, Warren's ability to create an almost unbearable sense of intimacy with her characters, displayed previously in such short works as "The Glass Woman" and "Skin Holes" (both collected in The Grinding House, CSFG Publishing, 2005), is in full flight.

I found accusations in this book, laid against the artist who believes that beauty is enough, that its creation is all they owe the world. But I also found alliances of beauty and compassion, and the understanding that not all injuries are inflicted out of malice. One thing is certain: those who do choose to inflict pain, devouring love and offering nothing but torment in return, will find no quarter here.

"We won't miss another monster."


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