The Clay Girl by Heather Tucker chronicles the childhood and adolescence of Ari/Hariet Appleton. The youngest daughter in a family of six girls, Ari tells her story in the first-person point of view. The novel begins with Ari as a young child being bundled off to her aunt’s house when her father commits suicide. After a brief stay with her aunt, Ari goes back to live with her mother and stepfather.
To say Ari comes from a dysfunctional home is a gross understatement. Her father raped and impregnated one of his daughters and sexually molested the others before committing suicide. Her mother is abusive, cruel, neglectful, selfish, homophobic, and riddled with drug and alcohol addiction. Her first stepfather provides the stability Ari needs, cradling her with unconditional love and security. But after his death, Ari’s mother marries an abusive police officer. Her mother and new husband retain custody of her, primarily because they are after the money she inherits from her step-father. Ari has to navigate her way through school, hold down two jobs, and tread very carefully at home to avoid the physical, mental, and emotional abuse regularly inflicted on her by her mother and new step-father.
It is heart-wrenching to read the struggles and obstacles Ari experiences as she grows into her adolescence. Her constant companion through the tumult is her imaginary friend, an inner voice manifested as a seahorse named Jasper. Ari and Jasper have ongoing conversations, with Jasper commenting and advising Ari on how to navigate the turmoil.
This is an engaging, page-turning novel with many strengths. The characters speak in brisk, animated dialog. The narrative chugs along at a swift pace. As the protagonist and the teller of her own story, Ari is likable, intelligent, talented, resilient, witty, and street-smart. Her horrific experiences endow her with the ability to view the world with unabashed honesty. We watch as she skillfully skirts the land mines placed in front of her.
But the novel also has some missteps, the most notable being that it stretches the limits of plausibility. Ari not only manages to bounce back from multiple attacks of verbal and physical abuse, she somehow thrives on them. She excels academically at school in spite of her spotty attendance. Her teachers are more intent in encouraging her to pursue her academic and artistic talents than in safeguarding her from the abuse they know she suffers at the hands of her guardians. They bandage her battered and bruised body and send her back to her abusers armed with little more than comforting words and encouragement to pursue her writing.
The many characters in Ari’s life are one-dimensional. They are either hell-on-wheels (her mother, father, and second step-father) or saintly, loving, and supportive (her aunts, first step-father, teachers, and friends). The latter lavish Ari with continuous praise to the point of tedium. And in many ways, Ari is too good to be true. A young child whose father was an incestuous pedophile, whose mother is an addict, whose step-father is physically and emotionally abusive, and who is hurled from one traumatic event to another can hardly maintain the up-beat, can-do, generous spirit Ari exhibits.
In spite of these shortcomings, the novel has much to commend it. Through the eyes of a child, we see the interplay of child abuse, pedophilia, sexual assault, substance abuse, homophobia, greed, and cruelty. We also see the redemptive power of love in a child’s life. The narrative sustains reader interest. We continue to read if only to learn what new horror Ari is subjected to and if and how she manages to maneuver herself out of it.
Recommended with reservations.