There are lots of reasons to read Family by Micol Ostow. One of them is not to see an accurate description or retelling of the infamous Manson murders. Yes, there is a quotation from Manson: “At my will, I walk your streets and am right out there among you.” (location 34). After the middle of the novel, the phrase “helter-skelter” appears frequently. There is no doubt what the basis for this “episodic verse” novel is. One reason to read the story is for those unfamiliar with the form; readers can learn something new about structure. The structure of this story is a combination of prose and poetry. Readers will love it or hate it. I found it interesting, but I won’t look for more books written in this form.
Readers might be surprised when I claim a novel of 384 pages is a fast read. Usually, that would be unusual. The story is a quick read because of the form in which many lines may contain only two or three words. I read the entire novel in four hours while on a moving bus going to a beach for a company team-building exercise. Two hours on a twisting, steep road going to a beach and two hours for the return was more than enough time to complete the novel.
Regarding episodic verse, the “episodic” part comes in because of chapter titles such as “before,” “after,” and one-word titles that refer to a principal action related to Melanie, who appears as two characters. In the real world, Melanie is a young girl who experienced very adult activities at the age of five. Melanie’s mother knew what “Uncle Jack,” also known as a stepfather, was doing, but decided Melanie was an acceptable sacrifice. Unsurprisingly, Melanie adopted a coping strategy, whether consciously or not. Character two appears in a mirror, Mel-me (Melanie in the Mirror). The two co-exist until Melanie runs away from “home.”
Living on the street and hungry, Melanie joins a familiar scenario. A predator, Henry, observes a vulnerable person and assesses how to manipulate Melanie into becoming a willing member of his family, a family group that believes “Henry” is just another pseudonym for Jesus Christ. All members of the family share everything; resources, daily tasks, and bodies. There is no coercion. Occasionally Henry might misjudge someone. It seems that those not expressing the correct doctrine of total adoration are permitted to leave.
Henry and family live on a farm owned by an aged, near-death, and blind Emmett. Still, money is required. Members of the family can beg for money and food. Presumably, nothing is out of bounds as far as what family members might do to meet daily needs. Henry constantly iterates that there is no past, no future, everything is “now,” and everything is allowed. To experience is to live, the more extreme experiences provide the most realistic experiences. Through it all, it is vital that everyone acknowledge Henry as a deity.
But Henry is human. He is an artist sure that if he can share his music with the world, both the world and Henry will be better off. When a music industry agent fails to meet with Henry as agreed, Henry goes off his deified rails and directs his followers to educate the agent. Henry will not accompany Melanie, Junior, Leila, and Shelly to the agent’s home, but he will give instructions and imply what must be done to his followers .
It can be uncomfortable to read this story. There is the abuse of Melanie, but all members of Henry’s family have been damaged in some way. Readers may be uncomfortable with the content. Other readers will not like the seemingly endless repetition of the same core elements presented in only slightly different ways. I do not know how to assess this because I tend to accept a poet’s right to interpret actions in any way they want. It is like when I ask a person’s opinion. The answer cannot be wrong. The person replying is expressing an opinion. I don’t have to like or agree with the answer. If I don’t like Ostow’s method of dramatic presentation, I don’t have to read it.
The way Ostow presented Melanie’s thoughts invites the reader to join Melanie and consider what they, readers, might do in similar extreme circumstances. Readers who want to enjoy a linear story (let’s get on with it) won’t like this story. I felt this story had too much repetition. Constant restatements reminded me of Ayn Rand. I like Ayn Rand, but it can be too much.
I rated this at four stars and will read more by Micol Ostow to see how the writing style changes. I downloaded this book with my Scribd subscription.