Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
One Foot Wrong
By Sofie Laguna
ISBN-13: 978-1-59051-316-3, August 2009, 208 pgs, Trade Paperback: $12.95
One Foot Wrong is a powerful and extremely disturbing novel. It starts off gently, dropping the reader into the lyrical, almost charming narrative of Hester Wakefield. It’s a child’s world, where cats and birds are friends, and inanimate objects such as a spoon, a chair and a broom, communicate warmly. Parents on the other hand, are objectified and kept at a distance wherever possible. The lyricism of Hester’s astonishingly beautiful and myopic voice is constant, even when the plot becomes terrifying and tragic. There are no preambles to the abuse; no softening constructs. The narrative occurs entirely through Hester’s eyes, and they are as wide open and innocent as those of the image on the book’s (American) front cover. That innocence doesn’t shield the reader from the abuse and pain she receives at the hands of her parents, known to us as Sack and Boot. They are appropriate names. These two people are clearly the novel’s villains. The mental and physical abuse they inflict on their only daughter is shocking, and the fact that it’s depicted delicacy only heightens it.
However, Boot and Sack aren’t only antagonists. They are also victims. It isn’t possible to hate them completely. The come-uppance or moment of Hester’s triumph is as painful as her abuse. There is no catharsis in it, even when the recollection of Hester’s abuse is inherent in the objects that take on the guilt:
Sack pushed down the angry bread with her fingers. I couldn’t get the air past the bread and fingers. The angry bread filled the room with its shouting no no no! Boot came running back into the kitchen. He pulled Sack off and held her by the shoulders. The pink spider turned in tiny circles under her eye. Sack was shaking. Boot told her to have a lie-down upstairs. He gave me water. I drank the water. “I’m afraid you’ll have to stay there until you’ve eaten it all up,” Boot said. I tasted blood.(5)
That’s one of the milder passages of abuse. Much of it is far, far worse. But as the book progresses, it becomes clear that much of the mental illness lies with Sack and Boot rather than with Hester. In contrast to both parent’s chaotic insanity, there is a deep, graceful lucidity in Hester’s perceptions. Although she is forbidden to ever leave the house, and is only allowed to look at two books (she isn’t taught to read), The Abridged Picture Bible and Illustrated Hymns, she develops an almost ecstatic relationship with the world when she slips secretly outside:
Through the seeing eyes of the flower saw the way dirt moves, each piece up against another, always changing places. The orange flowers wore skirts for the dance of feet passing. The purpose flowers were teacups full of tea that tasted like honey. I put my face up close and took a small sip. I closed my eyes. Blankets of purple, orange, and pink came down over me. (9)
Hester’s own capability on the home front – her ability to chop wood, clean, and prepare food slavishly – suggests that it is the environment she lives in, rather than a genetic inheritance that has created her perceptions. Not all of Hester’s relationships with people are negative. Later in the book Hester is taken to meet her grandmother Mog, and instantly feels comfortable on her lap. There is Mary, a girl that Hester befriends during her brief period at school, and Norma, a fellow inmate at Renton, the institution that Hester later attends. These are supportive relationships that mitigate those of other adults, from the government, to the ‘carers’ at Renton, and even the kindly teacher at Hester’s school who turns a blind eye when Heather’s abuse becomes obvious. Hester’s home life is one of stark fundamentalism. Her diet is heavy and forced down her (as illustrated in the quotation above) by her mother. Her punishments are random and severe, initiated by a drawing; a funny look in the eye; a moment in the sunshine. In Hester’s world the one consistency is that authority, whether it’s the school board, her parents, or even “God the Bird”, is cruel and demanding in mysterious, incoherent ways. Although her retribution and escape is horrible, it possibly does represent an awakening of sorts and there is affirmation in that, though it could hardly be called a happy one.
To say that One Foot Wrong is an intense book would be an understatement. Despite it’s passion and intensity, the reading is fast, propelled by the sense of impending explosion. Something has to happen in this pressure cooked existence. Moments of contrition on the part of Boot and Sack don’t excuse them, but it does help to illuminate the complexity of Laguna’s characterisations, and adds to the power of the narrative.
Working out Hester’s age isn’t easy, and there seems to be a disconnect between the school she attends, where kindergarten style activities take place, and the fact that she gets her period and becomes a “woman”. I would guess that Hester is around thirteen, and that perhaps she attends a special school for the mentally disabled, but this isn’t clear, especially as the school body doesn’t seem to be prepared to deal with Hester’s circumstances on any level, something that would usually be the case in a special school. This is the one place where the book falters, but so powerful is the narrative, that it’s possible to simply ignore the disconnect. Certainly there are shades of dark and light in this novel, but there does come a point where the reader feels that maybe Hester has slipped into a permanent mental chasm – that her abuse has been too damaging for her to ever escape from. Despite the horror of Hester’s life – a horror that remains with the reader – there is also a deep sensual beauty. The reader is also left with Hester’s sense of joy and freedom in swimming in a river, noticing the life of the natural world: of insects; dappled light; or an “empty, blue sky” that never ends. This is an extraordinary, poetic novel that gives as much as it takes. It may destroy your equanimity, but it will also open a door on perception and understanding.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, , and Quark Soup. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks, and Sofie Laguna is our next guest.