Books

'Grist Mill Road' Questions the Role of the Spectator to Violence

Just as it's hard not to look at a road accident, it's hard to put Christopher J. Yates' uncomfortable book down.

Grist Mill Road
Christopher J. Yates

Picador

Jan 2018

Other

Grist Mill Road opens in a dramatic and disturbing fashion. It's 1982. Hannah, a teenage girl, is tied to a tree while a teenage boy, Matthew, shoots her with a BB gun. A 12-year-old boy watches and counts each shot (noting that the police report states Hannah was shot "only" 37 times when he counted 49 shots). His name is Patrick (or Tricky or Patch or sometimes Paddy). Patrick watches the entire horrific assault, hears every scream, and finally asks himself, "What does it mean to watch? When a crime takes place in front of you, what is watching? Is it a failure to act or is it simply keeping your eyes open?"

These are questions both Patrick and readers will try to answer in this story.

A few twists and years later (2008), and Patrick and Hannah are married and living in New York City. Patrick, who recently lost his job, is cooking and blogging. Hannah, with her eye patch (one of the shots hit her directly in the eye), is a journalist who covers the crime beat.

More questions immediately jump to mind—why did Matthew shoot Hannah, why did Patrick simply watch, and why did Hannah marry Patrick?

Answers are hard to come back in this page turning, thought-provoking book. Even though at times reading the book almost feels as awkward and wrong as rubbernecking an accident on the interstate—slowing down to see the crash and feeling both irritated and relieved (irritated by the traffic jam, relieved that it isn't you in that smashed car). Still just as it's hard not to look at an accident, it's hard to put this book down.

The storyline alternates between the '80s and 2008. In the past, the book details both the events leading up to the assault as well as what happens directly after. In 2008 we watch Patrick and Hannah struggle through their lives and see Matthew emerge after years of absence (including, of course, some prison time). With the shifts in time often come shifts in person. The book opens with Patrick's voice and it's his voice (and perhaps then, his story) we often hear. When the story is set in 2008, it often switches narration styles as well. It's a beautifully jarring shift as we, the readers, move from hearing Patrick's thoughts to watching what Patrick does, particularly because watching Patrick is rarely comfortable.

Later, both Hannah and Matthew have the opportunity to narrate their own stories, and here time seems almost flexible but ownership of the story is clearly important. Hannah opens by stating "This is as far as I go. I would have told the rest of it myself, the story of everything that led up to that day in 1982, and I would have told the truth the best I could, right up to that day in 1982…"

Perhaps that's a good way to look at this story—the search for truth. Each character adds their own pieces to the story and in theory the whole story, the real story, the true story will emerge. Of course, in this book, as in real life, that's easier said than done. Consider a few more of Hannah's words: "One thing I'd like to make clear before Matthew begins—when you read the whole truth about everything that happened in 1982, please understand that I didn't lie back then. Seeing is believing, I was thirteen years old, a confused teenager, and I certainly didn't act with any sort of malice…"

By the end of the book, many questions are answered—with varying degrees of surprise and clarity—but several questions still remain: one being how are we—the audience/the readers—supposed to react to each of these characters—particularly Matthew and Patrick? Which is worse: the person who committed the crime or the person who could have stopped it and didn't? Patrick clearly can't forgive himself; can we?

"I remember the gunshots made a wet sort of sound, phssh phssh phssh, and each time he hit her she screamed. Do the math and the whole thing probably went on for as long as ten minutes. I just stood there and watched."

Grist Mill Road is a complicated story with many layers. The characters are complex, and most of them are wonderfully human (which of course means deeply flawed). The story details too many problems and issues to list—including but certainly not limited to the far reaching impacts of violence. Still, the notion of "watching" is the idea I keep returning to. In a society where reality television and social media often dominate, where cell phone videos of just about everything appear online, the idea of what it means to watch takes on new meanings. Grist Mill Road is a book that provides ample opportunities to explore what some of these new meanings might be.

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