Today’s team review is from Olga.
Olga blogs here https://olganm.wordpress.com/
Olga has been reading An End to Etcetera by B. Robert Conklin
The author has published stories before, and not only that, but he has studied and taught writing, and although this is my first contact with his work, his level of expertise is evident in all aspects of this novel: plot, characterisation, style…
The description provides enough clues as to the general plot, and in order to avoid spoilers, I will try not to elaborate too much on that aspect of the book. This psychological thriller (for lack of a better categorisation) digs deep into the mind of its characters, and it has a way of grabbing readers’ attention and making us question everything we read and our own minds.
This is a book beautifully constructed. The story is narrated in third-person, from alternating points of view, those of Selena, the therapist (a child and adolescent psychologist), and of one of her patients, Leal, although there are many extras and the story is anything but straight-forward, both in the plot and the way it is told. The writing is beautifully descriptive, and a lot of the novel is taken up by lengthy descriptions of the therapy sessions between the two main characters. Those, though, as Selena notes, consist of Leal narrating a story. This might (or not) be the story of what happened, and what landed him in trouble at school. Nobody seems to believe his version of events, and he insists on narrating that story in chronological order, in maddening detail, despite any attempts made by Selena at changing the pace, bringing up other issues, and trying to complete her report for the school in a timely manner. Selena, who has plenty of insight into what her behaviour should be like and into the need to keep professional boundaries with her patients, starts to pursue other avenues of information, to try to corroborate or disprove the account Leal is offering her. Her efforts keep being thwarted. Some of the people who appear in the boy’s story are no longer there, others are never available or have their own agendas and won’t cooperate fully, and her personal life (especially her pregnancy and her father’s illness) intrudes as well. After all, she has just moved back to live with her father in the small town where she was born, she is going through a divorce, and this pregnancy came quite unexpectedly after some painful losses. The more we read, the more we question everything, sometimes agreeing with the therapist, sometimes wondering about her own mental state.
There are clues and things that might make readers uneasy and raise doubts, and although this is not a standard mystery, readers need to keep their wits about them. Selena keeps sending e-mails to a mentor/lover and perhaps more, with details of the case, in an attempt at supervision. We get access to dreams, a deep mindfulness session with Leal that might uncover things even he is not aware of, and we can’t help but wonder how a boy so young could be as articulate as he is at times. Selena starts going beyond being a detective of the mind (soul, even) and starts digging too deep into matters, putting herself in situations that might not only be unethical but also truly dangerous.
There are plenty of secrets and half-truths in the story, with characters such as Thuster (who might or might not be only a shadow embodying the darkness inside Leal and all of us), a mother who has something to hide, a couple with a strained relationship, a woman who cannot let go of her relationships, a brother who refuses to grow, a disappeared priest, an artist with a peculiar painting style, women with tattoos, mannequins, guns, drownings, non-conventional families, therapists enmeshed in their therapies… The word “leal” means “loyal” in Spanish, and indeed, trust and loyalty are at the heart of the story.
Those of you who love unreliable narrators (as I do) will have a field day with this story. As per the ending… It is one of those endings that makes you reconsider the whole of the novel you have just read. I found it both, satisfying and disturbing. Disturbing because the ending of this novel, which keeps you guessing and second-guessing yourself all the time, does not disappoint in that aspect either. Satisfying because you do get answers to all your questions, although are those “the right” answers? As is the case with the best novels, this one will keep you thinking long after you have turned the last page.
I recommend this book to those who love beautiful writing, mind games, stories that make you dig deep into the psychology of the characters, especially if you don’t expect lots of action and a fast pace. Some of the topics that come up in the story might be disturbing (there is domestic violence, and some violent scenes, although not too explicit or extreme) but this is a novel more disturbing by what it makes us think of than what it actually says. You have been warned.
An End to Etcetera is a mystery/suspense novel for the adult literary market about an obsessive-compulsive psychologist who tries to uncover the truth behind her adolescent client’s confession to drowning an autistic boy left in his care. With no evidence to support Leal Porter’s allegation, the school has referred him to Selena Harris for counseling. Selena is going through troubles of her own: she’s separated from a husband who has ditched her for another woman, she’s pregnant after a one-night rebound with a former lover, and she’s moved back to her small hometown in Illinois to take care of her father who has suffered a debilitating stroke. Now she faces the toughest challenge of her career. Although she believes the alleged victim is the product of Leal’s overactive imagination and need for attention, she harbors one major doubt: What if she’s wrong? The novel would appeal to adult readers who enjoy solving psychological puzzles. Working alongside the psychologist, in the role of a detective.