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Oh, for a Sheltered Life : HOUSE RULES, By Heather Lewis (Doubleday: $21.95; 321 pp.)

July 17, 1994|Alison Baker | Alison Baker's book, "How I Came West and Why I Stayed: Stories" was published by Chronicle

This novel is hard to read and hard to put down. It's about ugly things, and it feels weighed down, leaden, hopeless--rightly so, because its narrator lives in a world where hope has never been discovered.

Fifteen-year-old Lee has been kicked out of boarding school for doing drugs, and for the first chapter or so we're tricked into thinking hers is the normal panic of a kid who doesn't want to face her parents. She's already made plans, she tells them when she calls home; she'll stay with Silas and work for him at the stable, as she has since she was 8 years old. She cons a friend out of her Visa card, sells her remaining dope and flies--molested en route by a traveling businessman--to Florida, where Silas has taken his horses on the show circuit.

Lee loves the horses, and she's a good rider, so there's no problem getting her old job back--riding for Silas and for the Cheslers, a staid, old-money family. But when she gets involved with Tory, a champion rider with a bad reputation, we begin to realize that something other than the usual adolescent rebellion is going on. The attraction between Tory and Lee is real, but the sex is rough. But Lee doesn't resist; in fact, the moments when Tory treats her tenderly are when she withdraws. Bit by bit, we learn that the only tenderness Lee has experienced is from her father, who, with her mother's collusion, has sexually abused her since she was a small girl.

Tory has strange, dark ties to her employers, Carl and Linda Rusker. When Lee begins riding for them, she finds that Carl uses brutal methods to train his horses, and Linda eases their resulting pain with narcotics. Lee slips into an affair with Linda, who's even more sadistic than Tory, and she discovers that Linda sedates her riders with the same drugs she uses on the horses.

Sounds ugly? You're right--it is. But it rings true. We begin to understand why Lee lets people do what they will to her as we learn more about what her own father has done to her all her life. There's never been a safe haven for this child. The book is a stunning portrait of a young woman who's been stripped of any sense of personal power.

Lee moves almost woodenly from bedroom to show ring, from the back seat of a car to her next fix, without any need to reign in her emotions--her feelings are buried so deep we suspect she might never find them. On top of all this, she suffers the normal anxieties of a teen-ager--fear of looking stupid, fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Above all, she's looking for someone to love her. But she can't open up to anyone. She even rejects Silas, the only person with a healthy desire to help her--she doesn't trust him, because she believes his kindness will leave her at his mercy. In her experience, trust has always victimized her.

Only during competition, on the back of a horse, does Lee have any sense of control. What's interesting is that, with horses, she knows when to let them have their way and when to rein them in. And when it comes to animals, Lee recognizes abuse. Toward the end of the book, as she watches what Carl and Linda do to their horses and sees what they've done to Tory, she begins to make connections to what they're doing to her. She dimly senses that there may be alternatives. But with no idea of what her choices may be, she's got a long way to go; it's hard to see how she can ever work her way out.

The difficulty with this book is the play-by-play description of sexual violence. In encounter after encounter, people are hurting each other--mostly they're hurting Lee--and we feel every blow. I wanted to skip a lot of it. But this meticulous reportage leads us to understand that Lee herself is immersed in details, and there's no way she can lift her head to see a bigger picture. Too, we can't help being a little titillated when we read the particulars of sexual encounters; and the shame we feel at our reaction gives us a tiny taste of Lee's complicated and overwhelming shame.

At times the narrator over-explains, spelling out her assessments of motivations and influences, and we wonder how a girl of that age can recognize what's going on. But that's part of victimhood, too; a person living under chronic abuse learns to be always alert--to avert the coming blow, to defuse situations that can explode and, most useful of all, to take her awareness, her mind and self, right out of her predicament: to see it from a distance and remain, in some hidden inmost part, untouched.

I'm not sure I'd recommend this book; I know I don't want to read it again. It can't have been an easy book to write. I hope the author's next novel will have more pleasure and less pain to report.

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