Armadillos by P K Lynch

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Armadillos by P K Lynch

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A coming of age tale in the badlands of Texas, which cover everything from small farms to the desert, the cities and the suburbs. A tightly controlled tale of survival.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2016
Publisher: Legend Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781785079597

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Aggie is one of Texas' downtrodden. Dirt poor and abused. a 'sub' from a 'sub' familyHer father and brother enact that 'sub'-ness on her, week in, week out. She has only the vaguest notion that there is something wrong with the abuse she endures..

But the vaguest ideas it will turn out are all takes for Aggie to get by. When she is fifteen, she walks away. Quite literally just walks out the door, and off the farm and keeps on going.

Of course it's not that easy. The walk becomes a run. And then she has to hide. And at night the dreams come to taunt her, with both what she is running from and with the sister she left behind. Jojo is not a baby sister she couldn't protect, but the big sister who did everything she could to protect her, but who still wouldn't have come with her, even if she'd been asked. Somehow Aggie knows this. So she sees her sister at the window, watching, and leaves alone.

Leaving without a plan wasn't so smart. Leaving in just the clothes she stood up in, even less so. Not so much as a bottle of water to hand, she heads out to the barren wilds of Texas.

Texas is big. The kind of big and empty that can kill you. In the notes to the book the English author states that she was encouraged to re-set the book in the Scottish Highlands. That wouldn't have worked, for the very reasons she gives. The whole point about the story is that there needs to be a place big enough to absorb just one more lost, rebellious, feisty, street-smart, farm-smart child.

Aggie is all of those things – well, maybe not street smart to begin with, but she knows how to handle the truckers, who willingly or otherwise help her on her way to begin with. She learns quickly.

Like many of the best debut novels, this one is tight and compact. This does make for some uncomplicated plotting, but then life isn't all twists and surprises. I like the fact that it doesn't try to hard, and that the reader standing outside of Aggie's head can see the links that she cannot.

It's all about Aggie. Told in the first person, we follow her flight from the farm to the city. From one abusive family to, potentially, another. For a relatively short telling, it's a book about many things. The original theme is abuse, and how some find a way to survive it – and if it's not too shocking a thing to accept, also about how others find a way to live within it. Events provoke memories to give us the Aggie-backstory, as seen mostly through the eyes of her younger self, and the beginning of interpretation by her present fifteen-year-old mind.

It's about the myriad of things people do to 'get by' through their own pain – whatever the source of that pain – be that self-harm, or cathartic writing, or drugs, risk-taking, focussing on unsolved conspiracies or offering practical help to others.

There's a nod to the squatter communities and to the hippy communes, both of which have attracted people for their own personal reasons, reasons which inevitably make them much more like families than friendships – with all the bitter rivalries and petty squabbles that that implies.

It's a book to undercut our prejudices about the homeless, the lost, the "subs". In the 'community' that Aggie stumbles into there are as many reasons to be there as there are ways of existing there as there are people involved. Some of them are stop-gapping, with real plans, practical plans. Others are potentially delusional. There's an old-fashioned hippy or two, and a new-fashioned one (21st century style). The contrasts between the pain-medicating dope smoker living on the trailer park, and her artist daughter trying to scrabble together enough for a rent deposit on an actual apartment is subtly played – but won't be lost on readers of a certain age. Others have wound up there, and found a temporary safe haven, so long as they follow the rules. Few of them realise just how shaky the foundations of those rules are.

Violence lurks below the surface through-out the telling. Lynch does well to keep it there. A very few scenes play out to make the threat of it real, but it is the threat rather than the reality that is key. The fear, rather than the event.

Some reviewers have said that they didn't quite relate to Aggie, or Freak, or any of the others. I beg to differ. I read the book in two sittings, and rooted for Aggie the whole way. The complexity of her is laid bare. She's a quick study – lies easily, knows what will get her what she wants, and spot when she's being played, but underneath that she is still a child, niaïve and struggling and wanting to trust. Fortunately I can't claim to have specific insight into what it's like to come out of an abusive situation at that age, but it does seem that such an upbringing would warp your understanding of the world, giving you knowledge beyond your years in some areas, but depriving you of normal-staged learning in others.

This is what I see in Aggie. She's had a brutal and rural upbringing… but the backwoods aren't what they used to be. There such things as television and books and phones and the internet. There's no pretence that the isolation is as complete as it used to be. Which is almost the point: the old-world nature of what had happened, and how it was managed, and allowed set against what it's really like out there (out here) now.

I wanted not a happy ending for her, for that would have made for an unsatisfying read, but a hopeful one.

I was ambivalent about the ending I wanted for Freak – but that is because I found her so believable, so damaged that I wished her well, but also so manipulative, that, frankly, I didn't.

Most of the other characters are there to fill in the background, except the Beast Woman – who makes nick-nacks out of old car tyres and provides dignified burials for road-kill Armadillos. I loved her to bits.

We're only just into May and this is the second one to make it onto my 'book of the year' contender list. It's shaping up to be a good year! My first recommendation on this scale was Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen which is very different in many ways, set in the middle east it has in common a theme of people surviving outside the norms of society, where crimes are committed that we should abhor, but because of context might not. For more from the wide open spaces of Texas, Bookbag can recommend The Son by Philipp Meyer.

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