Warning: this book and review discuss rape and self-harm.
This is a book that had me reflecting long after I read the last page. A haunting story about Maddy Malone, a fourteen-year-old girl who, on her way home from a play, is gang-raped by several boys from her school. Maddy tells no one. She never utters a word, and the pain and anguish that fill her torture her every day. When the boys intimidate and torment her into keeping her silence, the only relief she can find is in hurting herself. Burning herself. Because for her, fire is a cleanser – temporarily clearing her mind of the memory and numbing the pain. A sweet relief, if only for a moment.
An outstanding aspect of The Pain Eater is the story within a story. Maddy’s English teacher assigns the class a collective writing project, a novel that each student will contribute a chapter to. Maddy’s fellow classmate Kara is given the first chapter and she begins and ultimately decides what the story will be about. And that story becomes The Pain Eater. A story about a young girl named Farrang who lives in a tribe in the hills of Faraway. She is the tribe’s pain eater. She takes the villagers’ pain from them, and she is treated horribly. She is used and cast aside. As each student reads aloud their chapters, the story begins to take shape; and fiction begins to mirror truth.
It was especially interesting to listen to the different takes on what was happening to Farrang. Some kids thought it was Farrang’s fault that she was in the position she was in. Some thought she deserved what happened to her. And it broke my heart for Maddy to sit and listen to those chapters. But some students took up for Farrang. Some knew it was not her fault. And Maddy also listened to those chapters.
Just one person standing up for someone. One advocate. One supporter. One friend. And that voice can be found. There is an important lesson there. A lesson that has been forgotten and one that needs to be re-taught. Victims need voices, not shame.
I was most impressed with how the author wrote the chapters of The Pain Eater by multiple students. They all managed to sound distinctly different. As one would expect with an entire class writing… some stories were good, and some were, well, not as good. I honestly found myself forgetting this was all written by one author.
A subject matter such as this one is difficult to read… and it should be. But turning a blind eye to it doesn’t make it go away. This book is intended for ages 13 and up. It contains a rape and self-harm. But it also contains a very powerful and important message. When I first finished the book, I wanted justice, more resolution, and to be completely honest – swift and severe punishment for the boys responsible. But after mulling it over, I realized… that’s not what this book was about. This book is about Maddy, the victim. It’s not about her attackers. It’s about the aftermath, the coping, the pain, and then… the road to healing. Healing. And that is a beautiful, magnificent thing.