Title: Sideshow of Merit
Author: Nicole Pietsch
Published: September 16th 2013 by Namelos
Genre: New Adult / Young Adult Historical
Source: This book was provided by the Author/Publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review
You couldn’t call Mount Rosa Hospital a good place to be in 1957, when you were fourteen. But it’s where Tevan George was, and James Rowley too, “convalescing” from tuberculosis. And it’s where both boys were abused by an older boy–although neither of them did much talking about it, then or later. Shut up! That’s what Tevan did. James too, but he never said much about anything anyway.
Nine rocky years later, on the run together since they skipped out on a medical checkup at Mount Rosa’s in 1961, Tevan and James emerge early one morning from the ’55 Chevy they’ve been living in and come across Buddy Merit setting up his “Ten in One” sideshow on a fairground in Ontario. They can’t do magic. They can’t foretell the future. They can’t swallow swords. What Tevan and James decide they can do is a stunt they’ve done only in private, in the dark-a stunt that, performed in public for the marks, takes on a life of its own and surprises even the two young men who perform it. In the company of the misfits and reprobates and losers who make up Buddy Merit’s sideshow, Tevan and James act out the central trauma of their lives until they get to a place from which they can’t go forward and they can’t go back.
SIDESHOW OF MERIT is a story of abuse and recovery, of friendship and trust, of survival, of repeated failure and ultimate success, set against a backdrop of human frailty, selfishness, greed, and vulnerability. Tevan and James’s journey of is a coming-of-age story like no other.
There seems to some disagreement on whether this book should be classified Young Adult or New Adult. While there are flashback to teenage years, the majority of the story plays off when the main characters are in their early twenties. Then again, considering the lack of childhood these boys have, they do act like teenagers at times. Angry, scared, broken teenagers. So, you know, pick whichever you prefer.
It should be said that this story deals with some downright heavy issues. We’re talking destructive behavior, sexual abuse, drug abuse, violence, prostitution, racism, homophobia. Parts of it was hard to read, though a lot of it gets implied rather than outright stated. The author gives you enough for your imagination to fill in the blanks. In many instances, I was glad for this, as there were certain scenes I definitely did not want to read in more detail. And yet, in others it was downright frustrating because the vagueness of the scene made me question if I ever knew what just happened. Perhaps that was the point.
The first 3rd of this story blew me away. I fell instantly for the main character, Tevan George, and the way he looked at this ugly, gritty world. For his smart mouth and bravado, he’s barely holding on. Barely surviving. And doing all kinds of awful things just to keep holding on. It was raw, it was powerful, it was liberally sprinkled with bad language, just the way I like it.
The relationship between Tevan and James is fascinating. Also, incredibly dysfunctional and sad. Theirs is a friendship based on shared childhood horrors and self destructive tendencies, but they are there for each other. A flickering little beacon of hope in all the bleakness.
As the book progressed, and Tevan’s world began spiraling more and more out of control, and getting increasingly desperate, the story started wobbling a little. It became a little disjointed and difficult to follow. Much like Tevan’s peace of mind, which made me think it was done deliberately.
This was a book I could have loved. I wanted to love it. I did for the longest time. Then came the last 5 or so chapters and to me it was just the most unsatisfying ending in the world. All I was left with was a crushing hopelessness and feeling cheated. I don’t know, perhaps that too was the point of it all.
NICOLE PIETSCH is a writer and youth and women’s advocate living in Ontario, Canada. Since 1998, Nicole has supported women and youth living with violence, including survivors of sexual violence. Most recently, she has worked with youth survivors of violence who are incarcerated, those living in an institutional setting, and Deaf youth. Nicole has a particular interest in the ways in which social constructs of sex, age and race inform social policy, including medicine and law.