Author: E. A. Aymar
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“A Reason to Return”: Twinning and Violence in E. A. Aymar’s The Unrepentant
Review by Beth Osborne
There are plenty of reasons to be afraid as a woman. Walking to your car at night, you may grip and re-grip your keys, ensuring the correct hold should they need to become a weapon. A drink bought at a bar can become an aggressive quid pro quo attempt. In his book The Unrepentant, E.A. Aymar looks at one of the darkest reasons behind this fear: human trafficking in America.
The novel achieves an impressive balancing act of gritty crime and violence, along with insights on how complicated it can be to be human, attempting to connect with other humans. The narrative focuses around two characters. Mace is a thirty-seven year old army vet navigating a dissolving marriage while simultaneously struggling with a familial history of self-destruction which threatens to claim him. His counterpart, Charlotte, is a teenage runaway whom someone, it seems, wants dead. Mace and Charlotte are deep, tortured characters, unsure if they are worthy of love and unsure of their place in this world. The true rub of this book, however, lies in how well Aymar captures how fear manifests itself in each character.
This fear that Aymar plays with throughout the course of the novel focuses mostly on violence against women as perpetrated by men. With the omniscient narrative, Aymar takes the pulse of each character to reveal how they feel about this gender power dynamic. As one character reflects after being violent with a woman: “He knew what rape was. There’d been a girl in high school. They went on a date, went back to her place, and he got carried away and couldn’t stop. It was half her fault, he told her afterward; she’d got him way too worked up and, after a certain point, a man can’t stop. She’d agreed.” The idea that Man is in some way animal, that by agreeing to start something equates to implicit sexual consent, is particularly interesting when looked at through today’s lens of #MeToo and #TimesUp. It is this duality of perspective: that the treatment of women needs to radically change, or that this is simply the natural interaction of the genders playing out. Margaret Atwood is credited with the quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” This notion is realized with chilling accuracy in The Unrepentant. The men in the novel are the most violent and vile after a woman has “shown them up.” Whether it is the character Dory, a female lawyer who is attempting to help Charlotte safely escape and, as a direct result, thwarts the men chasing Charlotte; or Charlotte herself, inflicting violence on the men who assume that, since they are inherently stronger, she should not be capable of anything save submitting to Man. A woman with any power, any agency, is a threat to their masculinity. Should she then be destroyed? Or is she necessary for balance?
To further this fear duality between Man and Woman, Aymar uses the concept of twinning to great effect. This is seen most strongly in the characters of Mace and Charlotte. Though one is a teenager and one is a man going on 40, they both have a desperate drive to survive. Charlotte wishes to survive being hunted, though she struggles against her fear of the men who seek her, suspicion of the people who try to help her, and anxiety of the person she might become if she succeeds in her escape. In contrast, Mace hopes to survive despite the mental illness which has ripped apart his family. His mother committed suicide, and he fears his wife left him because she can see that same illness creeping into his eyes. It’s a powerful juxtaposition of external versus internal destruction.
Aymar also achieves this idea of twinning in the title. While the word “unrepentant” appears in the narrative itself to describe Charlotte’s drive for revenge against the men who abused her, it can also be attributed to the men who did the abusing; how they do not see their work with women as something lacking compassion, or as something morally repugnant. “Men and women would do this without me,” one character explains of working in the human trafficking business. “They have since the beginning of time.”
Trauma manifests into our personalities. It can make a cheerful and gregarious girl sullen and closed off. It can turn someone complacent violent, or it can force hatred inward, poisoning one against oneself. As Charlotte confides in the novel: “There was a time when those men had me, and I felt like my body didn’t belong to me anymore. Like it never would again. It still doesn’t feel like it’s mine.” By taking her body, they have taken her autonomy. She no longer belongs to herself but is Other unto herself. As Charlotte explains the sexual trauma she was victim to prior to being forced into sex trafficking, she states, “But I went along with it. Most of the time he didn’t force me.” She turns the responsibility for the action inward. Because she didn’t claw or scream or fight, because he did not force her “most of the time,” she feels intrinsically that guilt cannot be put upon the man alone. It begs the question if this is the true fear Aymar has hoped to unmask in his narrative. Not the pain others can inflict on us, but the pain we inflict on ourselves.
“My father always did a thing that surprised me,” one character tells us. “If there was a fish that struggled well, he would fight it, and bring it into the boat, but he wouldn’t kill it. Instead, he would unhook it and throw it back into the sea… He said it was the same fish every time. That he and this fish had a promise to always meet and fight. That they were friends. Now, I knew it wasn’t the same fish, and he knew that. But it meant something to your grandfather to have that promise, that idea that there is always a reason to return.” One cannot help but hope that we, each of us, have a reason to return as well.
Beth Osborne is a chocolate enthusiast living in Ithaca, New York. When she isn’t reading books, Beth can be found wandering in the mountains, baking bread, and training for triathlons. Before she was reading, Beth worked for Eugene Kittridge. However an incident in Prague convinced her to pursue a quieter life.