Juliet (II) by Sarah Xerta

JULIET (II) by Sarah XertaCombining depictions of rape with those of almost inevitable descent into apathy, Xerta creates a narrative that might leave the reader wishing she were less skilled, and less insightful.

This work is a sequel to JULIET (I); beyond that it does not open itself to technical description. Somewhere between prose and poetry, it rejects the label of prose poem. Even the page count is challenged by the intermingling of front matter with other content. The significance of this is left as an exercise for the reader.

Where it does itself up is beneath the reader. A pitchblende scream into the depths of having been raped, it slides through the shards of events before and after being raped.

The identity of the eponymous character is similarly more in the realm of emotion than logic. The narrator starts by telling the reader in second person that they do not know who Juliet is, and then talks of reading a story about a girl who was raped. Blending into tales of the narrator’s rape and Juliet’s childhood, turns of the page bring Juliet and the narrator into the same room; but do not confirm whether Juliet is the narrator, another victim of rape, or a fictional every-girl existing only in the narrator’s perception.

The worst silent film keeps flashing against the back of your skull: monochrome footage of a skull cracking open on the ice, your skull on the concrete in the spring, your blood making rivers in the cracks on the street. You tried to stuff every orifice with flowers right before you died there on the concrete, your eyes rolling up into your head like dead planets. You opened your mouth and Juliet was the sound that escaped into the sky. You opened your mouth and said, ambulance, emergency, Mother.

– Prologue

Encountering the prologue, the reader might, as I did, feel the horror of apparent accident and urge, already deep within empathy, that the protagonist live. Only to be gut-punched harder by later struggle to decide if survival was a mercy, to decide if abandoning life is the least worst choice.

Framing and reframing moments of the one/two/many protagonists, Xerta evokes unspeakable horrors, made more scouring by the casual apathy of their recollection.

Having summoned forth the apathy or disdain of society so convincingly, the narrative intertwines the surrender of victims to despair, doubt, and self-medication.

The word lies flat on your tongue. The word lies cool like the blade of a dagger. You press harder. You try to become one with the word but sense its clinical indifference to your person.

While the work as a whole denies technical analysis, Xerta’s use of language is skilled. In those moments the reader can force themselves free of the emotional truths, the structure and word choice sing like an iron prison.

You buy a bouquet of white lilies, your mouth full of blood, and nobody notices that you’ve been raped. This makes you wonder if maybe you haven’t been raped. Maybe you made it up. Maybe you really are nothing but a slut. Cunt. Whore. After all he did call you that. After all sometimes you liked it.

No moment in the work is free of the sense of futility rape leaves behind, and there are many moments that hit the reader hard – the narrator’s realisation someone saying they love you doesn’t stop it being rape, the suggestion that if the victim didn’t really want it they would have done a better job of getting rid of the rapist’s possessions afterwards – but perhaps the hardest punch is the epilogue: ‘This is how you fix it’ followed by blank pages. Still reeling from the instinctual fear that there is no solution, the space opens beneath the reader again with the realisation blank pages can be filled but need someone to do it.

I cannot say I enjoyed this work. But I do feel it. I recommend it to everyone, but force it on none.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.

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