Sean Dempsy suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following a tour of duty in Iraq during which he almost died at the hands of a suicide bomber leaving him with artificial knees, scorched retinas and burn scars. Like many combat veterans with PTSD, Sean is plagued by nightmares and flashbacks of the horrors of war that are often triggered by a car backfiring or a siren blaring. They literally incapacitate him to the point that he cannot leave his apartment or be anywhere near crowds of people without having severe anxiety attacks. Because of his agoraphobia and claustrophobia he relies on medication in order to function, to leave his apartment and do the most basic things such as shop for food, or make his weekly appointments at the medical clinic to refill his prescriptions. Unable to work, he supplements his disability checks and food stamps by writing straight and gay romance novels for an online publisher.
Gabriel Herne is an above the knee double amputee who also suffers from bi-polar disorder. He gets by as a phone psychic and also does in person readings. Gabe is pagan – Celtic solitary – and follows the teachings of Cernunnos, lord of plenty. His religion gives him peace and helps him to cope with the realities of his life. Gabe is quite self-sufficient and on the surface relatively well adjusted with a positive outlook despite his circumstances and limitations. However, being wheelchair bound and out as a gay man, Gabe is vulnerable to the aggressions of neighbourhood bullies and other dangers.
Sean and Gabe receive medical services at the same New York City clinic and this is where they initially meet and quickly form a relationship. Trust is established early in their relationship as they come to rely on one another to help them overcome the physical and emotional challenges they both face. But despite their love and commitment and as with all relationships they have their difficulties.
Shell Shocked by Angelia Sparrow and Naomi Brooks is described as an erotic m/m pagan inspirational romance and it is all of this and more. What struck me about this story is that it breaks many of the rules within the romance sub-genre and in this particular case within m/m erotic romance in that the characters are not perfect nor is their world. The authors do not gloss over or romanticise Sean and Gabe’s physical and emotional challenges, nor do they contrive the issues they face as a means of artificially heightening the level of angst in this story. And yet, Shell Shocked is very much an m/m romance with a happy ending.
Written in the third person through Sean’s perspective the authors portray the trials that both characters face individually and as a couple with sensitivity and authenticity. The main source for character development and relationship growth is the well-crafted, intelligent and realistic dialogue.
When Sean and Gabe look at one another they do not see missing limbs or physical and mental scars. Rather, in each other Sean and Gabe find succor, love, belonging and a sense of family. Sean becomes Gabe’s legs helping him by-pass some of the limitations of being in a wheelchair, and in turn Gabe is Sean’s emotional rock talking him through his anxiety attacks with his soothing voice and helping him to overcome his agoraphobia.
“‘…Do you know that you’re the first person who has really looked at me in a year? The first to offer coffee or even treat me like a real person? And then your being gay on top of it…I’m sorry. I probably came on too strong.’
Sean nodded. ‘I know. You’re in a chair, you’re invisible. I have one of my attacks and they might as well throw an invisibility cloak on me. The only people who can see me are kids and cops.’
Gabe smiled. ‘Well, then. I’m just gonna look out for you.’”
But as with all relationships Sean and Gabe as a couple are not without their difficulties. Once again the authors do not hold back in their portrayal of the relationship issues that Sean and Gabe must deal with that are often further exacerbated by their health situation and economic circumstances. One scene in particular comes to mind in which Sean and Gabe have a heated argument that crosses the fine line into verbal abuse. It is not often that one comes across this type a realism in m/m romance.
Within the context of Sean and Gabe’s love story Sparrow and Brooks also weave secondary themes that speak to the stark realities of the isolation and alienation of the mentally and physically disabled and their very real vulnerabilities when they are left alone to care for themselves in a world that is not necessarily understanding or kind, and one in which they are susceptible to poverty and violence.
Shell Shocked is an extremely well written, poignantly beautiful and indeed inspirational m/m story of two men who are alone in the world and further isolated by their disabilities, and who save each other when they meet and fall in love. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale and highly recommend it.
Shell Shocked by Angelia Sparrow and Naomi Brooks is available at Pink Petal Publishing in both e-book and print formats, at All Romance eBooks, at Amazon in print and Kindle editions and at Rainbow eBooks.
Music: Easy Silence – The Dixie Chicks (Taking the Long Way, 2006)