Rocks in the Belly, by Jon Bauer
Scribe, 2010
ISBN: 9781921844539
RRP:  $24.95

I’m a slow reader, but I ripped through Rocks in the Belly. It’s the kind of book you think about even when you’re not reading it. This novel is impressive in so many ways.

The story is about a child whose mother fosters boys. She bonds with one boy in particular, pushing her biological child  to the point where he can’t deal with the prospect of having his mother love a foster child more than himself, and he acts out. The novel explores the moral and emotional aspects of that situation, and the fall out of the 8 year-old boy’s actions.

The structure of the novel is unique – it’s told in two different voices. That’s not particularly new – authors have been playing with multiple points of view for yonks. What I found interesting, though, was that the two voices are of the same character. We hear of the childhood trauma in present tense from the focalization of the eight year-old boy, while alternating chapters are from that same boy as a twenty-eight year-old returning to his childhood home to care for his terminally ill mother. While I’ve read plenty of books that use different voices, I’ve never read any books that use two different voices from the same person at different stages in their life. Bauer has executed it really skillfully, tying these two voices together convincingly through distinctive sentence structures, in-jokes and personal tics.

There’s a lot of grey area in this book, and not in a purposely vague way. The main character (who remains nameless throughout the whole novel – mechanically, surely, pretty impressive) has this huge internal conflict, constantly trying to redeem himself from being a “bad” person. All characters in this novel engage in some pretty morally ambiguous actions, and one of the main themes of the book seems to be to examine that question – what do you have to do to be a “bad” person, and then what does it take to undo that? Indeed, can any of your actions make you a “bad” person, or are we all a little bit bad anyway?

The language Bauer uses is truly beautiful. At no point did I check out and skip over chunks of description (as we all do when we don’t care) – I didn’t want to miss a thing. The language is so gripping, and so fresh, that I was hooked from the prologue, where we are offered the haunting insight that the main character’s childhood haunts him “in much the same way my fists haunt my hands”. This kind of rich language is laced right throughout the novel, and it never upstages the action. The two are perfectly balanced, so that unless you’re reading like a writer who’s consciously looking for these things, you don’t even notice what’s happening other than the book being is really great.

It’s not often that I give anything 5-stars on my Goodreads account, but this got it. It’s been a long time since I’ve found myself this emotionally invested in a piece of fiction, while also being really switched on to the language and its masterful execution. Jon Bauer’s Rocks In the Belly is a new favourite.