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BookBrowse Reviews Perish by LaToya Watkins

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A Novel

by LaToya Watkins

Perish by LaToya Watkins X
Perish by LaToya Watkins
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2022, 336 pages

    Aug 2023, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book



An elegiac novel about a Texas family reckoning with a long history of abuse.

It's a commonly cited fact that many perpetrators of sexual abuse, particularly men, are victims of sexual abuse themselves. LaToya Watkins' haunting debut novel Perish covers three generations of abuse in one family, compelling readers to carefully consider their preconceived notions about what it means and how it happens.

Perish opens in the town of Jerusalem, Texas in 1955, where teenage Helen Jean is attempting to abort the fetus growing inside her with turpentine procured from a cousin for this purpose. The abortifacient doesn't work, and Helen Jean falls into a fit, during which she hears a voice tell her to "Bear it or perish yourself." She resolves to never attempt such an act again, regardless of the consequences or the provenance of the child.

The novel then jumps forward to 2018. Helen Jean is dying. Her grandchildren, Alex, January (Jan) and Lydia are orbiting her home and the hospital, often careful to avoid one another. Alex is a police officer in town, Lydia lives in Dallas where she and her husband have been trying unsuccessfully to start a family, and Jan is hoping to uproot her two children to Dallas so she can go back to school. Then there is Julie B., Alex and Jan's mother, one of Helen Jean's two surviving children. The other, Lydia's mother Ruby Nell, is mentally ill and living in a long-term care facility.

The rot at the core of this family is traced back to Helen Jean's father. She and her brothers were left alone with him after their mother died by suicide, and Watkins vividly evokes the twin specters of fear Helen Jean's parents sowed in her. As a young woman, she is a victim of sexual abuse by her father and assumes she will end up like her mother:

"Helen Jean knew one day she'd wake up and all of that would be gone. She knew she wouldn't remember who she was or how she became that person and that it would leave her in pieces, like chipped nail polish or cracker crumbs in shag carpet. She imagined that some of the pieces would fall and she would never find them in the carpet of the world. And to her, that would be heaven."

The narrative moves back and forth through time, featuring flashbacks from Helen Jean's life that illuminate the situations and relationships of her children and grandchildren. These are interspersed with chapters narrated from the present day depicting Alex, Lydia, Jan and Julie B. attempting to break free from the prison of their past experiences. For each, the presence of the others only seems to tighten the ties that bind them.

Jan and Helen Jean are the most complex and artfully rendered, and it is in these characters' parts of the narrative that Watkins' outstanding writing is given expansive space to stretch its legs. They are the most alike of any of the family members — both refuse to be defined by men, to be tied down or victimized by them. Alex is less developed. We learn a few small details of his present-day life, but much is left unsaid. Why did he become a police officer? How does he feel about his job? What happened in the decade-plus years between him being sent to a camp for unruly boys at 14 and the current-day timeline? The novel belongs to the women, and rightfully. But Watkins' attempt to humanize Alex while also keeping him at arm's length means the reader may not fully connect with him. He inspires pity but little empathy or interest.

Julie B. is also skillfully drawn, and an effective foil for her mother. While Helen Jean exorcised the abusers from the family, sending them to live in a shed in her backyard, Julie B. refused to choose between her son and her daughter — an abused abuser and his victim.

This is the novel's central conundrum: What do you do with a family member who has done something monstrous? What if that family member also had something monstrous done to them? One character complains of being unable to grieve her loss after an abuser's death, unable to "love him out loud." How can you love someone who has done something unforgivable?

Perish is a remarkably well-crafted Southern gothic that shows no mercy. The family at its center is poor and marginalized and profoundly unhappy, each wounded in their own distinct way. Jerusalem, ironically, is a hot and dusty hell, a purgatory no one can quite crawl out of that reeks of "the stink of hog pens." There are graphic depictions of sexual violence. The characters lack access to resources that might help them process their traumas, resulting in the perpetuation of the cycle of abuse from one generation to the next.

The climax features a shocking event — whatever you're imagining, I promise it's more shocking than that. Watkins takes risks at every turn and almost all of them pay off. It's not a book defined by human misery, though there is a lot of that. There is also triumph, audacity and brilliant moments of dark humor. In one scene, born-again Jan waits for her punished son to come out of school, eating cornstarch, which she finds similar to the dirt she craved during pregnancy, and thinking about "how wide I love Jesus and how much I hate sex." Perish is distressing, wildly unpredictable and entirely unforgettable.

Reviewed by Lisa Butts

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in September 2022, and has been updated for the August 2023 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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