I bring you another great find I picked up from Rosie’s Book Review Team. You know I have a personal connection and interest in books related to mental health, and therapy, and those where the psychology of the characters plays an important role, so you’ll understand why I was immediately attracted to this one. I am not going to enter into issues of diagnosis or evaluate how accurate the book might be, as my experience with young patients is very limited, and I’ve never worked as a therapist, but I can tell you that this is pretty impressive. And some.
An End to Etcetera by B. Conklin
A boy. A shadow. A murder.
Pathological liar? Sociopathic killer? Or just a troubled kid seeking attention? These are the questions that haunt therapist Selena Harris as she undertakes the most challenging case of her career.
Sitting on a couch two feet across from her is an ordinary-looking teenager who confessed in a text, inadvertently broadcast to his entire school, to murdering an autistic child left in his care. With no evidence to support Leal Porter’s testimony, authorities have referred him to Selena for counseling.
Challenging her professional distance is the emotional bond she develops with this lonely, isolated boy, whom classmates describe as “that scrawny kid who talks to himself at his locker.” Although Selena believes the alleged victim is the product of her client’s fevered imagination, she harbors one major doubt:
What if she’s wrong?
Selena can relate to Leal’s feeling of isolation, especially as she has returned to her small hometown on the heels of a divorce to take care of her father, who has suffered a debilitating stroke. In Leal’s case, however, he’s a school outcast due to his predisposition to tell tall tales to worm his way out of trouble.
Stepping outside the confines of her office in a quest for clues, Selena is determined to separate fact from fiction. But nothing in her experience prepares her for the harrowing revelation of the inner demon that lurks beneath the surface of Leal’s confession.
Katherine Burkman, author of April Cruel, writes: “What is fascinating about An End to Etcetera is the nature of the relationship between a psychologist and her thirteen-year-old patient. As a whodunit, we are not sure of what has been done or who is responsible, as we watch both patient and therapist evolve. Extremely well-written, the suspense involves more than that in your usual mystery, since it is the mystery of life itself. The writing pulls you in and won’t let you go.”
B. Robert Conklin (he/him/his) lives, writes, and works, not necessarily in this order, in Columbus, Ohio, where he helps his spouse nurture the creativity of their three Gen-Z kids, who seem determined to take less-traveled paths of their own. In his leisure time, he takes nature walks with his family’s two ferrets and practices the craft of cartooning.
His credits include stories in Blue Moon Literary & Art Review, THAT Literary Review, and Kestrel, with another accepted for publication in The Strong Stuff: The Best of Fictional Café, Volume II. With a teaching background in composition and literature, he has also co-authored a college textbook to help emerging writers connect with their world.
His day job involves developing e-learning modules and hosting internationally attended webinars on the topic of nondestructive testing—a profession geared to keeping airplanes from crashing, bridges from collapsing, and nuclear reactors from imploding.
Visit him on Twitter @rbconklin1 or at brobertconklin.wordpress.com
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
The author has published stories before, and not only that, but he has studied and taught writing, and although this is my first contact with his work, his level of expertise is evident in all aspects of this novel: plot, characterisation, style…
The description provides enough clues as to the general plot, and in order to avoid spoilers, I will try not to elaborate too much on that aspect of the book. This psychological thriller (for lack of a better categorisation) digs deep into the mind of its characters, and it has a way of grabbing readers’ attention and making us question everything we read and our own minds.
This is a book beautifully constructed. The story is narrated in third-person, from alternating points of view, those of Selena, the therapist (a child and adolescent psychologist), and of one of her patients, Leal, although there are many extras and the story is anything but straight-forward, both in the plot and the way it is told. The writing is beautifully descriptive, and a lot of the novel is taken up by lengthy descriptions of the therapy sessions between the two main characters. Those, though, as Selena notes, consist of Leal narrating a story. This might (or not) be the story of what happened, and what landed him in trouble at school. Nobody seems to believe his version of events, and he insists on narrating that story in chronological order, in maddening detail, despite any attempts made by Selena at changing the pace, bringing up other issues, and trying to complete her report for the school in a timely manner. Selena, who has plenty of insight into what her behaviour should be like and into the need to keep professional boundaries with her patients, starts to pursue other avenues of information, to try to corroborate or disprove the account Leal is offering her. Her efforts keep being thwarted. Some of the people who appear in the boy’s story are no longer there, others are never available or have their own agendas and won’t cooperate fully, and her personal life (especially her pregnancy and her father’s illness) intrudes as well. After all, she has just moved back to live with her father in the small town where she was born, she is going through a divorce, and this pregnancy came quite unexpectedly after some painful losses. The more we read, the more we question everything, sometimes agreeing with the therapist, sometimes wondering about her own mental state.
There are clues and things that might make readers uneasy and raise doubts, and although this is not a standard mystery, readers need to keep their wits about them. Selena keeps sending e-mails to a mentor/lover and perhaps more, with details of the case, in an attempt at supervision. We get access to dreams, a deep mindfulness session with Leal that might uncover things even he is not aware of, and we can’t help but wonder how a boy so young could be as articulate as he is at times. Selena starts going beyond being a detective of the mind (soul, even) and starts digging too deep into matters, putting herself in situations that might not only be unethical but also truly dangerous.
There are plenty of secrets and half-truths in the story, with characters such as Thuster (who might or might not be only a shadow embodying the darkness inside Leal and all of us), a mother who has something to hide, a couple with a strained relationship, a woman who cannot let go of her relationships, a brother who refuses to grow, a disappeared priest, an artist with a peculiar painting style, women with tattoos, mannequins, guns, drownings, non-conventional families, therapists enmeshed in their therapies… The word “leal” means “loyal” in Spanish, and indeed, trust and loyalty are at the heart of the story.
Those of you who love unreliable narrators (as I do) will have a field day with this story. As per the ending… It is one of those endings that makes you reconsider the whole of the novel you have just read. I found it both, satisfying and disturbing. Disturbing because the ending of this novel, which keeps you guessing and second-guessing yourself all the time, does not disappoint in that aspect either. Satisfying because you do get answers to all your questions, although are those “the right” answers? As is the case with the best novels, this one will keep you thinking long after you have turned the last page.
A sample of the writing:
For those of you who might be intrigued by the title, it comes from a conversation between the therapist and Leal’s mother:
She said she just wants it to end —the etcetera.
The etcetera? I asked her what she meant.
You’ll find out soon enough, she told me. With Leal, there’s always one more thing—one damned thing after another to worry about.
Here, Selena is e-mailing her mentor and supervisor, telling him what the experience of her sessions with Leal is like.
And yet, all the while, I have the feeling there is more going on inside his head than is coming across verbally. His focus is perpetually inward. It’s as though there is a feature-length movie unfolding in his imagination, complete with dialogue, pans and zooms, soundstages—who knows, even CGI—and I am like a hungry dog, grateful for tidbits, leftovers, thrown from a table holding a smorgasbord out of my reach.
An example of the type of descriptive writing I so liked:
The wind died away and the surface of the lake became very calm, as still as green glass. She sat by the shore, hands on her stomach, feeling the movements within coming more and more strongly now, so she knew it wouldn’t be long. The farther shore of the lake became a distant world, foreign and invisible, shrouded in mist, and the stars of the night sky opened like holes puncturing the canvas of a wide purple umbrella.
I recommend this book to those who love beautiful writing, mind games, stories that make you dig deep into the psychology of the characters, especially if you don’t expect lots of action and a fast pace. Some of the topics that come up in the story might be disturbing (there is domestic violence, and some violent scenes, although not too explicit or extreme) but this is a novel more disturbing by what it makes us think of than what it actually says. You have been warned.
Thanks to Rosie and her team for the support, thanks to the author for his novel, and thanks to all of you for reading. Remember to share with anybody you think might enjoy it, and keep smiling!