Split begins with Jace Witherspoon showing up, without a word of warning, on his brother’s doorstep in Albuquerque, nineteen hours of driving away from ‘home’ in Chicago. At this point, there’s no explanation of what’s going on, though readers get a hint when Christian asks Jace “Did he kill her yet?”
As the brothers talk over “breakfast for dinner”–eggs, pancakes, hash browns and the like at an all-night diner, readers find out more of the backstory. The boys’1 father, a judge in the notably corrupt Chicago court system, has been systematically and coolly abusing their mother for years; this ranges from verbal haranguing to physical beatings and up to nailing her hand to a wall of the garage and leaving her thus for twenty-four hours. As an eleven-year-old, Christian began intervening by provoking the father when he was working up to an attack on the mother, thus diverting the father’s attention from his wife to his son. After six years of injuries, many of which required trips to the emergency room2, Christian runs away from home with the help of his best friend at the time, Paul Costacos, and Paul’s family, who have suspected there was something wrong but hadn’t wanted to intervene. Five years later, after years of similarly diverting his father’s attention from his mother to himself, Jace enrages his father once too often; his father throws him out one evening, refusing him access to his own belongings in his house. His mother gives him what little cash she has, hidden in a tampon box, and Jace drives straight through to Albuquerque, arriving with only $3.84, a bruised face, and the desperate hope that Christian hasn’t moved from his last known address.
All his life, Jace has been told how much he resembles his father, but it is only as he matures in his late teens that he comes to realize that it’s not just a physical resemblance but an emotional and temperamental one, and, perhaps more importantly, this resemblance and this similarity is not necessarily a wholesome one. Compounding his fears for his mother’s treatment at the hands of his father, Jace has himself begun to exhibit abusive behavior: when his girlfriend in Chicago stepped out with another boy, Jace attacked her–slamming her into a wall, and strangling her to near-unconsciousness. It is in no small part this relationship and this fear he is fleeing: will he continue what his father has unwittingly taught him? is he fated to become an abuser in any future relationship? Fortunately, he takes the first step in his own recovery and breaking the cycle, by not only acknowledging that it is he who is at fault, not the girlfriend, but also refusing to allow the girlfriend to feel any shame or remorse for her own behavior. Instead, he insists she file a warrant for his arrest.
The five years of silence and separation, combined with the brothers’ attempts at coping with a horrific situation, both in their parents’ relationship with one another and in the parents’ relationship with the sons, by combining silence and repression of memories, makes for a difficult fall. They’re not talking even to each other, much less to the people who’ve become part of their lives in Albuquerque. Although they guess that there’s something terribly wrong, neither Christian’s lady friend or the girls Jace meets can understand why the two men are holding them all at arms’ length. Despite Christian’s doubts, Jace not only maintains contact with their mother but begins to hope she will break away from the relationship herself, coming to them for Thanksgiving. As readers familiar with the patterns of spouse abuse and controlling relationships will have guessed already, this does not happen, despite Christian and Jace showing up on her doorstep on the day of Thanksgiving, ready to take her away; she chooses to stay with the familiar patterns and the wealthy lifestyle rather than leave what she knows.
This is one of the best YA novels I’ve read for this blog; while nothing comes close to A Monster Calls in the category of issue-driven fiction, Split is well worth reading for anyone (teens and adults alike) who’ve just begun reading about the problems of spousal and child abuse. As a voracious and adult reader of some decades now, this doesn’t strike me as being particularly subtle, mind, but it’s a good introduction to a nightmarish problem. Getting out of an abusive situation is bad enough if the husband3 monitors the bank accounts, and prevents the wife from spending time with friends of her own choice, but what if the victim cannot conceive of escaping? I appreciate Avasthi’s decision to conclude the novel the way she did; it’s easy enough for people with intact self-esteem to wonder why the victim does not choose to leave a situation such as described in Avasthi’s novel. Surely the mother can recognize what’s happening? Well, no. That’s part of the cycle too, when the victim loses the ability to recognize she is free to go, that she is capable of making her own decisions on matters of friendships, finance, education, even clothing.
1with apologies to young persons everywhere–Christian is 22–this was simply the smoothest grammatical description
2with corresponding coverup stories
3with apologies to all the abused men out there–and it’s important to remember that the stereotypical pattern can be reversed