Grace Jensen survived a horrific fire at age 15. The flames changed her: badly scarred in body and mind, Grace developed an ability to feel other people’s pain. Unable to bear human touch, she has made a small life for herself in Northern California, living with her hoarder mother, tending wounded animals, and falling a little in love with her former doctor. Her safe world explodes when the magnetic Marly Kennet reappears in town; Grace falls right back into the dynamic of their complicated friendship. Marly is the holder of many secrets, including one that has haunted Grace for over a decade: what really happened the night of the fire?
When Marly exhorts Grace to join her in Las Vegas, to make up for the years they have been lost to each other, Grace takes a leap of faith and goes. Although Marly is not entirely honest about her intentions, neither woman anticipates that enlarging Grace’s world will magnify her ability to sense the suffering of others—or that she will begin to heal wounds by swallowing her own pain and laying her hands on the afflicted.
This gift soon turns darker when the truth of Marly’s life—and the real reason she ended her friendship with Grace—pushes the boundaries of loyalty and exposes both women to danger.
This is a magic realism book with the emphasis on the realism. The only magic element is Grace's ability to heal others: My hands ache as I hold them over her. When I rest them upon her, I feel as though someone has opened a window and let in humid and cloying draft of air. She groans slightly and shifts, and my serpent and I make our way into the wet and sticky interiors of her illness. Of course to believers in such things, Grace's healing ability would also by realistic.
What Grace sees when she begins to heal is shown to us using strong visual imagery to describe the ailments: a stagnant pond thick with debris and sludge, or hot tar or a black pulsing stone. But this poetry works because it is counterbalanced by the psychological realism with which Grace is drawn. The book is written in the first person, which takes us straight into Grace's mind, fears and anxieties. The healing seems to come from Grace's ordeal as a burns victim. It gives her empathy for others that translates into being able to see and feel their pain. We in turn empathize with Grace from the very beginning of the book: her alienation manifested by her physical pain on being touched and her feelings of entrapment in her body and in the home she shares with her hoarder mother.
But Grace's empathy is dangerous - not only does healing wipe her out, draining her of strength, but she blames herself when things go wrong or she finds herself unable to heal. It is at its most dangerous in the relationship with Marly, which clearly was mutually obsessive when they were teenagers and which picks up where left it off at their reunion. It is an extremely complex relationship - both nurturing and damaging. Whilst the story of Grace discovering and using her gift is fascinating, the book's main focus is on how Grace comes to understand her relationship with Marly and therefore what happened in the tree house fire which caused her injuries.
The true strength of this book is the psychology of the characters. Not just Grace and Marly but all the characters are brilliantly drawn, three-dimensional and credible. No one is shown as simply good or bad; the characters are drawn as complex individuals. This is aided by the first-person narrative, for Grace as she grows in knowledge changes her views of people around her. This in turn allows for some unexpected plot twists.
I really enjoyed this book and found it easy to read, despite its depth. A fine example of how the new generation of indie writers are producing work as good as anything coming from traditional publishing houses.