Book Review: The Cresswell Plot, Eliza Wass (2016)

June 6th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

What did I just read?

two out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for child abuse and domestic violence.)

‘You will hide your true self. You will bury what you fear, in a locked chest in the cave of your heart, where you will keep the bones of the person you could have been.’

“It’s funny, isn’t it?” he said, chest contracting as he caught his breath. “How beautiful the world becomes when you think you might have to leave it?”

So here’s the thing: I had high hopes for The Cresswell Plot. I love a deranged cult story as much as the next looky loo; and between its suggestive title, eloquent synopsis, and oh-so-creepy cover art, The Cresswell Plot looked quite promising. And while Father’s “religion” is indeed the stuff of nightmares, the rest of the story fell short of my expectations.

My biggest issue was with the characters. With the exception of Father – who is reliably cruel and demented – I had trouble pinning the characters down. Cas, Caspar, Morty – they’re all over the place. Their beliefs, allegiances, reasoning, thought processes – I never felt like I got a good handle on them at all. One minute they’d be rebelling, testing the rules by joining the school play, dressing in “normal” clothing, or lusting after classmates; the next, they’re snitching on their siblings and setting fire to their potential allies’ houses. Each move was a complete surprise to me, and not in a good way; there just didn’t seem to be any consistency to their behavior.

To be fair, this could be the whole point: e.g., this is what growing up in such a dysfunctional home does to a person. But if this is the case, it could have been handled with more nuance and clarity.

It’s not even wholly accurate to say that there isn’t any character development here. (Although I would have liked to have learned more about Hannan, Jerusalem, Michael, and Momma.) Rather, it feels like many of the protagonists were cobbled together, Frankenstein style, from mismatched bits and pieces of other people. Abstract individuals, painted by Picasso.

Not surprisingly, the plot was also a bit of a mess. The ending felt rushed, and then resolved itself a little too neatly. There were multiple threads – some of them quite promising – that were left dangling.

For example, Father’s origin story: we see in Castley’s illicit photograph that Gabriel was once a happy, popular, regular teenager. I suspect that the original Caspar’s death might have been the crucial event that forever altered the course of the Cresswells’ lives. Perhaps Father killed Caspar in a fit of rage, or maybe it was an accident; either way, Father needed to construct a world-view that explained his propensity for violence away, and/or gave meaning to Caspar’s tragic death. Equally traumatized, Momma went along – until her fall down the stairs, at least, when escape became physically impossible for her.

That would be a rather interesting backstory, don’t you think? Unfortunately, it’s only ever hinted at – and vaguely, at that. We never learn the cause of the estrangement between Gabriel and Michael, nor does Wass explore the relationship between Michael and his sister-in-law.

Also, the incest thing. One of Father’s teachings is that the siblings will all pair up – enter a celestial (and presumably chaste) marriage in heaven. To this end, he’s already arranged their marriages: Castley + Caspar; Delvive + Hannan (they’re not just siblings, but 2/3 of triplets); and Jerusalem + Mortimer. Of course, this is bound to fuck with their heads – especially as they enter puberty and start experiencing “carnal urges” (ew!).

And we definitely see this with Cas who, by story’s end, has made out with Caspar. And then … nothing. Thread, dropped. Like, you can’t just go back to normal after something like that. But maybe your father trying to kill you just takes precedence? idk. It just seems like kissing your brother deserves more than a passing mention, you know?

So that brings us to the one part of the story that I did enjoy: Father’s crazy cultish religion. There are some really creeptastic elements here, even if I never felt like they were utilized to their greatest potential. Every night, the Cresswell family gathers for Bible study; in addition to the Bible, they also read from Father’s own hand-crafted book of revelations (narcissistic much?). (Here I’m picturing the Unibomber’s diary, perhaps with some of the more horrifying flourishes found in Murray Goldberg’s scrapbook.) Father doesn’t “believe” in plumbing; rather, leaky and corroded pipes are a test from God. Radio, TV, and cell phone transmissions are too easily hijacked by the devil, and are thus banned from the Cresswell home (though not until Father ripped the stereo from the truck in a fit of violence; convenient, that). Likewise, modern medicine is the stuff of Satan. This includes bone setting and casts, both of which Momma is denied (or denies herself) after she falls (is pushed?) down the stairs, breaking a leg. It “healed” into a permanent bent position, leaving mom disabled and dependent on Father.

When the Cresswell kids break Father’s bizarre and arbitrary rules (e.g., why on earth is Hannan allowed to participate in a secular pastime like HS football?), they’re locked in “God’s grave,” a small, cave-like sewer in the woods. Sometimes for days on end, without food, water, or adequate clothing. But they’re not alone (muahahahaha!).

If I seem flippant about child abuse, it’s only because Father’s behavior is so exaggerated and over the top, like cartoon violence. In the real world, I’ve no idea how this kind of abuse would persist, undetected – especially after Morty’s broken collarbone attracted both attention and intervention (albeit limited). The kids are dirty, starving, and often show up to school with bruises, burns, and other obvious signs of abuse. Yet the only person who seems concerned for their welfare is Michael. And it’s not like they live in a cloistered community where the local government officials adhere to the same fundamentalist beliefs as Father (e.g., polygamist Mormons in Utah). Nope, the Cresswells are a sea of weird in a secular society. I can’t imagine any of the adults in charge covering for Father.

The Cresswell Plot is an example of good idea/poor execution. It’s weird; the synopsis is accurate, but also not. (Like, what even is the titular plot here? The characters don’t act, they react. Forget about plotting!) While it does approximate the story, it’s also a lot neater and more cogent than the actual book. I feel like maybe this is what Wass was shooting for, but fell just short.

2.5 stars, rounded down to 2 where necessary.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Father is physically and psychologically abusive to his wife and six children. It’s hinted that Delvive is gay (she has a crush on her Drama partner, Emily). Jerusalem has been mute ever since the kids were split up and placed in foster homes, several years ago. I’m 99% sure Michael’s stepdaughter Amity is black (the writing is a little confusing here; the black girl at the convenience store could either be Amity, or an unnamed classmate).

Animal-friendly elements: n/a

 

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