Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s debut novel, Thirsty, professes to be a novel about domestic abuse, its horrible legacy and one woman’s struggle to get out from under its damaging fist.
The novel opens in Croatia in 1883: “In the beginning, Drago smelled of dirt and bloom, the odor that would rise if you peeled the erath back at its seams.”
Klara is just 16 when Drago arrives on her doorstep. Her mother is dead; her father is mean; she’s responsible for looking after five younger siblings and she dreams of a better life somewhere else. Drago is handsome and he’s going to America.
Thirsty is a pretty compelling story, but there’s too much story here for 200 pages. I never felt like I knew any of the characters well enough to really understand their motivations, fears, dreams. The book covers 40 years and, honestly, it felt unfinished to me.
Klara learns pretty early on in her marriage that Drago is just as violent as her father. Why? Who knows. We do learn, half way through the book, that he loved someone else – a blonde woman who married his brother. When Klara decides, out of the blue, to get her hair dyed – of all things – blonde and Drago beats the crap out of her, Drago’s reminiscence seems less like character development and more like plot contrivance.
Klara’s daughter, Sky, grows up to be promiscuous – clearly searching for something to take away the pain of having watched her mother be her father’s punching bag. Then she marries an abusive man. We get a page and a half of his story and then eight years zip by and Sky and her two young daughters arrive on her parent’s doorstep. She’s a mess.
Thirsty felt like a string of little set pieces, strung together, rather than a novel with a central character we understood or could root for. My frustration with Klara wasn’t because she didn’t leave Drago. I understand well enough the psychology of battered wife syndrome. My problem was that I just didn’t care.
I might have given up on the novel all together if it hadn’t been for the fact that the writing was quite lovely at times. But as a story of abuse and one woman’s efforts to break free – it falls short. The ending is not a triumph for Klara. Ultimately Klara’s new life, when it begins, has more to do with good luck than good management.