An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg is reminiscent of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong in that both focus their lens on the relationships of people living in small towns. Both novels also tackle the themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, and finding home.
An Unfinished Life tells the story of Jean Gylkison, a wife and mother who harbors considerable guilt for causing the car accident that killed her husband. She vaults from one abusive relationship to another, taking her ten-year-old daughter, Griff, with her. The novel opens with Jean leaving her latest abusive boyfriend, Roy, after experiencing yet another night of beatings. With Griff’s urging, mother and daughter run away from Roy and end up in the small town in Wyoming where Jean grew up and where her father-in-law, Einar, lives. Einar resents Jean with a passion and blames her for the death of his son. But as the story unfolds, Einar and Griff develop a strong bond. Ultimately, Jean and Einar reconcile and forgive each other, primarily due to their shared love for Griff.
The strongest part of the novel for me was in its character portrayal. Spragg somehow manages to enter the mind of the ten-year-old Griff, revealing her innermost thoughts and capturing her dialogue very convincingly. Griff is an endearing character, wise and intrepid beyond her years. She has had to be in order to survive living with her mother’s abusive boyfriends.
Einar’s relationship with his war buddy, Mitch, was also beautifully captured. Their friendship has lasted 50 years, with Einar acting as the caretaker for his now severely disabled friend. The dialogue between these two elderly men was like that of an old married couple who have been through difficult times together but who survive by relying on each other for support and friendship. They know each other so well they can finish each other’s sentences, anticipate each other’s thoughts. Their communication is sparse, with meaning being conveyed more by what is left unsaid than what is articulated.
Spragg also captures the psychology of a woman living in an abusive relationship. Jean is consumed with self-blame and diminished self-worth. She thinks she deserves the abuse and gravitates from one abuser to another before finally extricating herself. Research on domestic violence tells us, on average, a woman attempts to leave her abuser 7 times before she finally leaves him for good. And the number one reason women finally leave their abuser is because of their children. Griff certainly plays that redemptive role. She urges her mother to leave Roy, and it is because of Griff that Jean tries to start a new life for herself.
But for me, Spragg’s strongest portrayal lies in the character of Roy, the abuser. He is typical of many batterers who confuse love for another person with possession, entitlement, and control. Roy has convinced himself he loves Jean, that she is his to possess, that he beats her for her own good, and that beatings are a normal part of all relationships. He is a thoroughly despicable character who sees himself as the victim, not the abuser. Spragg does a magnificent job of capturing the psychology of both the victim of abuse and the perpetrator.
This is an engaging, well-written novel about forgiveness of one’s self as well as of others, about reconciliation, friendship, and community. But for me, the most impressive part of the novel lies in the strength of its character portrayals, especially the portrayals of Griff and Roy.