Charles is 14, and after being discovered with his first love he is forced into a mental hospital to cure his sexuality. For the next ten years he endures mental and physical torture as part of that treatment and when he is finally free, he begins a relentless quest for vengeance against the woman who abetted his commitment into that hospital, his mother Charlotte.
The Value of Rain chronicles Charles’ journey from hate to the unexpected beginning of redemption, and reveals the destructive nature of families, secrets and revenge.
“There are dead people in my head. They keep squirming around and pulling at me just when I expect that things will get better; just when I hope that life will improve somehow. But it never happens like that, not in my world. Not in anyone’s really. I think that we all just kind of hope that somewhere amidst the flotsam in this shitty river we call life there will be a savior that comes along and lifts us from the stream of our relatives, our sanctity and our moroseness. It’s not religion or god I’m talking about; it’s that one soul that leaves its mark so deeply imprinted on you that your very breath seems short when it’s gone.
What makes that impression?
What soul has that much aura?
More importantly, how can you replace it?
I don’t think I have that answer any more, and I wonder if I ever did; if anybody ever did.”
Brandon Shire’s debut novel, The Value of Rain, is the powerful and haunting story of Charles Benedict a fourteen-year old boy who, in 1971, is sent by his mother to an institution for the mentally insane when he’s caught sleeping with his best friend and lover Robert. There, he is warehoused along with those branded criminally insane but it becomes quickly apparent that, like Charles, many of the boys and men are there as both punishment and treatment for their homosexuality, or have endured years of abuse at the hands of parents, caregivers or within the child welfare system that they suffer from mental illness or have become violent offenders themselves.
Set in Connecticut and New Orleans and spanning two decades from 1971 to 1991, the novel begins and ends in the story’s present (1991) but unfolds in a non-linear fashion alternating between present and past. It is written in the first person with Charles as the narrator of his ten years of institutionalisation in two separate facilities, the physical and emotional horrors he and others endure under the guise of psychiatric treatment, the relationships he forms with two boys – Bruce and Snow – while incarcerated, and his singular quest for vengeance against his mother when he is finally released at age twenty-four.
The novel embodies elements of both gothic and Dickensian-inspired fiction and Mr. Shire’s distinct literary style not only captures the emotional magnitude of the experiences of Charles and the other characters in this novel, his writing envelopes the reader within it. His use of language is quite distinct in that the novel is written in a lyrical and poetic style with beautiful prose and subtle descriptions juxtaposed the brutality and horror that Charles and the others endure. Mr. Shire ascribes such an intimate voice to Charles and the character is written with such depth that his heart wrenching pain is palpable, as is the tragedy of Bruce and Snow – the boys that Charles befriends in the psychiatric hospital.
The plot takes many twists and turns both in terms of the events that precipitate Charles’ release and what he discovers when he sets out to find answers to his mother’s cruelty. The character of Charlotte is quite interesting in that although Charles uncovers the many family secrets that motivated her actions, she remains somewhat of an enigma and a character for whom it is very difficult to muster up much empathy. Whether this portrayal of Charlotte was purposeful on the author’s part it does serve as highly effective in polarising this character vis-à-vis the others, thereby accentuating not only her cruelty but also the devastating effects of her actions on Charles and other members of the family.
This story profoundly resonated with me on number of levels and I found it to be multi-layered in terms of both emerging themes and underlying meaning. On the surface the story is about a boy’s journey into hell and his quest for revenge as a young man. However, despite the story’s historical nature it speaks to timely issues faced by LGBTQ youth, among others, family rejection and disownment, conversion therapy, abuse, violence, suicide and homelessness. The strongest messages that I took away from this novel speak to the systemic failure of families and societies to ensure the protection and rights of children, teens and young adults, in particular LGBTQ youth, and that once a young life and psyche are shattered recovery from the trauma and the possibilities for a semblance of a life may sometimes be elusive.
The Value of Rain made the list of my favourite books read in 2011. For a debut novel it is extremely well written and Mr. Shire is most definitely an author I will be reading in the future.
The Value of Rain by Brandon Shire is available in ebook format at Smashwords, in print at CreateSpace and at Amazon in both print and Kindle formats. The author is donating half the profits of this novel to LGBT Youth Organizations.