Blame it on V.C. Andrews. If you’re a reader of a certain age, you’ll remember the moment you read that attic scene where brother and sister Cathy and Chris do what no brother and sister should ever do. Flowers in the Attic was published in 1979, which is the year I graduated from high school. I flew through the book and its sequels and prequels, until I lost interest. In the characters, not in the subject matter because while incest is certainly taboo, there is something strangely riveting about relationships that are not meant to be. Ever.
Several of my all-time favourite books including Relations by Carolyn Slaughter (which predates this blog), A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore and Billy Dead by Lisa Reardon are about incestuous sibling relationships. Meg Rosoff’s masterful How I Live Now is about cousins who fall in love. You might well ask how books that tackle this subject could possibly be made palatable, and yet they can be. But I think that the material must be handled by a skillful writer because it’s certainly a fine line to walk between compelling and believable, and just uncomfortable ickiness. For example, none of the books I’ve mentioned here concern abusive relationships (although there is horrible abuse in Billy Dead between the sister and a different family member), or relationships between an authority figure, a father or uncle for example, and a much younger person. Two other books I really loved include these sort of relationships: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent and The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel. Kathryn Harrison’s memoir The Kiss is about the author’s sexual relationship with her father and it has a huge ick factor, but is also so compelling it’s hard to stop reading. I definitely think incest is a kink and I couldn’t tell you why I find it so fascinating, but I do.
I had never heard of Tabitha Suzuma’s 2010 novel Forbidden until a few days ago, when I stumbled across a mention of it on the Internet. I ordered the book and settled down to read it, and I couldn’t stop reading.
Lochan, almost 18, is trying to keep his family together with the help of his younger sister, Maya, almost 17. They have three younger siblings, Kit, 13, Tiffin, 8, and Willa, 5. Their mother is an alcoholic who works as a waitress and spends most of her time across town at her boyfriend Dave’s house or hung over on the couch. Their father left London with his new girlfriend – now wife – and moved to Australia six years ago. The financial support eventually stopped, but so did any contact.
The novel’s narrative alternates between Lochan and Maya, and it is clear that they depend on each other to make it through the craziness of trying to look after three younger children, the house and meals and everything else you might expect a parent to do, and stay on top of their schoolwork, too. Lochan is brilliant and bound for University London College as soon as he finishes his A Levels. What he struggles with is severe anxiety. He is friendless at school, rarely speaks, and spends most of his time sitting in a stairwell, reading. Maya is more outgoing, but her best friend is her brother, and it’s been that way since even before their father left.
Lochan and Maya get each other. With Maya, Lochan can relax. She can make him smile. She can calm his nerves. Lochan realizes his feelings are changing first.
We are still dancing, swaying slightly to the crooning voice, and Maya feels warm and alive in my arms. Just standing there, moving gently from side to side, I realize I don’t want this moment to end.
It’s only when that closeness crosses the line, and it’s revealed that Maya’s feelings are the same, that the brother and sister find themselves in a precarious predicament.
I refuse to let labels from the outside world spoil the happiest day of my life. The day I kissed the boy I had always held in my dreams but never allowed myself to see. The day I finally ceased lying to myself, ceased pretending it was just one kind of love I felt for him when in reality it was every kind of love possible. The day we finally broke free of our restraints and gave way to the feelings we had so long denied just because we happened to be brother and sister.
From that moment, the novel is relentlessly, breathlessly un-put-downable. I kept waiting for some big twist, something that would allow Lochan and Maya to have the life they want, which is a life together. Every stolen moment is fraught with the danger of being found out and being found out would have devastating consequences for their younger siblings, who would surely end up in the foster system, since their mother is rarely around and certainly not fit to care for them.
Suzuma skillfully navigates a story which has the potential to be so problematic, but which ends up being beautiful and devastating. I really loved this book and I keep wondering what it is about these forbidden relationships that keep me coming back for more. Even Maya is self-aware enough to know that her feelings for her brother are unnatural.
Having a physical relationship with one’s brother? Nobody does that; it’s disgusting; it would be like having Kit as my boyfriend. I shudder. I love Kit, but the idea of kissing him is beyond revolting. It would be horrendous; it would be repulsive –
Perhaps it is their circumstances that make the notion of being in love more palatable. “Lochan has never felt like a brother” Maya rationalizes. “He and I have always been equals.” In every instance of incest that I have read, there has been some trauma involved. For Maya and Lochan it is their total sense of abandonment, of having to be adults when they are really still kids; of having no one to turn to but each other. Another quality of this sort of story is the angst. When two people should be together and can’t be together – for whatever reason, not limited to being siblings – I am all in. 100%,
Suzuma does not shy away from any of this story’s minefields and she doesn’t exploit her characters, either. I will definitely be reading more by this author.