REVIEW: Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma
NOTE: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS – BIG, HUGE SPOILERS – FOR THE ENTIRE BOOK. PLEASE DO NOT PROCEED IF YOU PLAN TO READ THE BOOK AND DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED ON THE PLOT.
Dear Ms. Suzuma,
This has been a really difficult review to write.
When Jane sent an email indicating that this book was available for review to the reviewer group, and Janine chimed in to say that Forbidden was apparently about an incestuous brother/sister relationship, I was instantly intrigued. I was curious about how a YA book would tackle such a taboo subject. What I found was a book that troubled me, because (in part due to the first person narrative) the gulf between the way the characters’ motivations and actions are presented, and how I as the reader viewed them, was simply huge.
Maya and Lochan are brother and sister, living in London with their mother (nominally, at first) and their three younger siblings. Their mother is an irresponsible alcoholic who is usually either working or with her boyfriend (as the story goes on, the mother becomes even less of a presence in the family home). Lochan is the oldest, at 17; Maya is just 13 months younger. They have been taking care of their younger siblings for a while now; at least since their father left their mother. (The father eventually remarried and moved to Australia, and the children now have no contact with him.) Both Maya and Lochan are good surrogate parents and work well together, but obviously the responsibility is a burden to them, especially as the next oldest child, Kit, is entering his teenage years and beginning to act out.
How exactly the family got to this point was not well explained. The youngest child, Willa, is only five years old, so presumably the family was intact not that long ago. But there’s never a sense given of what Maya and Lochan’s early years were like, whether they have any good memories of their parents when the whole family was together. What little memories are shown indicate that the parents had an acrimonious relationship, but it’s not clear if that’s just during the breakup or for the entirety of their childhoods. This mattered to me for a couple of reasons. First of all, I wanted to have an idea of how dysfunctional their entire lives had been; I mean, things had obviously been dysfunctional for at least the past several years since the father had left (and the fact that the father abandoned the family without compunction pretty much indicates that he wasn’t probably the best father to start with).
The other reason I wanted to understand the childrens’ earlier lives better relates to the first issue: Maya and Lochan are pretty damn saintly (Lochan has some emotional issues; more on that later). They are smart, responsible and more patient than a lot of 30-year-old biological parents would be with their sometimes challenging younger siblings. They (rather understandably) have little use for their feckless mother, but on the whole they don’t evince too much anger towards her or towards their absent father.
In general I believe one’s personality is usually formed by a combination of nature and nurture. Sure, there are cases of people who were raised horribly but go on to be wonderful, productive and healthy people. But more often than not, the sort of blows that Maya and Lochan have been dealt in their young lives are damaging. Yet in the book there doesn’t seem to be a connection made between these damaging events and either Lochan’s problems or the eventual incestuous relationship. This lack of connection became a real problem for me as the book went on.
Since the story is told in first person, by both Maya and Lochan, maybe we’re meant to understand that their perspectives are skewed. But that wasn’t the sense I got at all. Their points of view are presented in a very straightforward manner. It led to a real disconnect for me from the characters and the story. The best way I can explain it is this: both Maya and Lochan have narrative voices that do not feel authentic for children in their late teens, even ones who are bright and self-aware. Further, the self-awareness was an issue for me, because the way they present their relationship and the choices they make show a huge lack of self-awareness. Each of them (Lochan particularly) make really, really bad decisions in the course of the book, yet these actions are presented as reasonable, even noble. Further, their justifications for their relationship lacked real awareness that their screwed-up family dynamics might play a part in them falling in love.
In their internal musings and discussions with each other on the nature of their relationship, both Lochan and Maya say that they’ve never “felt” like brother and sister, but rather like “best friends.” I’m not sure what that even means. You can be both sibling and best friend, first of all; my sister is my best friend. I would think their closeness would make them feel more like siblings, not less. The only circumstances I can imagine saying that a sibling didn’t feel like a sibling would be if I really felt no connection to him/her (and I know that’s the case in some families, for various reasons). It just made no sense to me for the opposite to be true.
Maybe what they meant was that they didn’t relate to each other as they did to their younger siblings. But this is where the lack of sense and self-awareness comes in: of course they wouldn’t. They’re a year apart from each other but about 4 years from their younger brother and even more from the other two. They’ve parented all three. Of course the relationships are not going to be the same. To use that as evidence that the incestuous relationship is somehow more legitimate was just cuckoo to me. They try to further justify the taboo relationship by discussing the various types of unhealthy, abusive relationships that society accepts while condemning incest.
This sort of rationalization would’ve worked for me if it was clear that it was supposed to be a rationalization of an unhealthy relationship that was influenced to a great degree by their unusual and dysfunctional upbringing. But again, there was nothing beyond the first person voice that indicated that Maya and Lochan were wrong in their feelings and actions.
Even the tag line on the cover of my copy of the book, “Sometimes love chooses you” suggests that Maya and Lochan are a brother and sister who just happen to fall in love. I just don’t find that notion credible. It’s made less credible by their circumstances, which seem almost tailored to foster unhealthy relationships. As a reader, I try not to focus on the author, but to accept the characters at face value. In certain circumstances, I find that hard to do. It’s believable that Maya and Lochan don’t see the role that their family dysfunction plays in their relationship. But I needed some sense from the author that the reader was supposed to understand differently, and I never got that.
This is not to say that I didn’t have sympathy for the couple. I felt compassion for them and did not feel disgusted or judgmental about the relationship. I actually would’ve been okay with an HEA for the two of them. But simply from a rational point of view, I couldn’t get behind the romanticizing and whitewashing of the relationship that seemed to go beyond the narrative voices to the authorial one.
I also found it not credible that the characters’ sexual attraction came about at such a late age. This goes back to my belief that the relationship had to be the result of inappropriate channeling of emotions. Lochan is 17, a bit late for a boy to experience some sort of sexual awakening, but there’s no sense of him as a sexual creature; in fact, his attraction to Maya seems to be very much the by-product of his non-platonic love for her (in other words, he doesn’t love her because he lusts after her; he lusts after her because he loves her). Which I guess fits in with the narrative, but again doesn’t fit in with my perception of how such a relationship could or would come about. It would be much more realistic to me (if distasteful to some readers) if Lochan and Maya turned to each other when they were each a few years younger – as they begin to feel and explore their sexuality, the unusual intensity of their bond would manifest itself in a sexual way. Instead, it just sort of appears one day – Lochan realizes that he’s jealous after another boy asks Maya out; Maya comes to realize that however nice the other boy is, she doesn’t want him because he isn’t Lochan.
Characterization is really a weak point in Forbidden. Maya has no real personality that I could discern – she’s mostly just a collection of virtues. The mother is a central casting Bad Mother. The only character who shows any real depth is the troubled middle brother Kit, who seesaws between being an awful juvenile delinquent and showing flashes of the needy child he still is.
And then there is Lochan. Lochan operates well within the family, being responsible, patient, caring and articulate. Outside of the family unit, aside from being a good student, Lochan is a mess. He suffers from severe social anxiety to the point that he’s friendless, incapable of talking to his peers, and terrified of speaking in class. He has panic attacks. He appears to have a stutter, which I thought was going to be a bigger plot point but never materialized into one. His internal monologues are disturbing – he often thinks in terms of coming apart, of essentially losing his mind. The parts narrated by Lochan can be difficult to read because from his own perspective, he is almost always teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I didn’t know if I should be disturbed by his feelings or annoyed because at times it comes off like melodramatic teenage angst.
The book begins with this internal monologue from Lochan:
I gaze at the small, crisp, burned-out black husks scattered across the chipped white paint of the windowsills. It is hard to believe that they were ever alive. I wonder what it would be like to be shut up in this airless glass box, slowly baked for two long months by the relentless sun, able to see the outdoors—the wind shaking the green trees right there in front of you—hurling yourself again and again at the invisible wall that seals you off from everything that is real and alive and necessary, until eventually you succumb: scorched, exhausted, overwhelmed by the impossibility of the task. At what instincts keep it going until it is physically capable of no more, or does it eventually learn after one crash too many that there is no way out? At what point do you decide that enough is enough?
Lochan’s voice is like that through much of the book: depressed, tormented and exhausted. Yet his mental health issues are not ever clearly delineated or even addressed beyond the acknowledgment that his school forced him to see a counselor at one point.
What frustrated me most about Lochan’s character was that again, I wasn’t clear if he had always been like this, or if his problems manifested themselves later in his childhood after the trauma of his parents’ breakup and his mother’s descent into complete irresponsibility. It felt disconnected from his family problems and disconnected from his attraction to Maya (except to the degree that this attraction gave Lochan more of an opportunity to feel tortured and miserable).
The issues I had with Forbidden really came to a head in the last quarter of the book. Again, I will warn the reader – huge, huge spoilers ahead.
Lochan and Maya are caught in the midst of consummating their relationship fully by their mother. The mother somehow assumes that Lochan is raping Maya and calls the police; while they are waiting for the cops to arrive Lochan hurriedly tries to convince Maya that she must claim that he was forcing her to have sex. His reasoning is that one of them needs to be around to take care of the children, or they will only have their irresponsible mother to care for them, which will mostly likely result in them quickly becoming wards of the state. If they admit the relationship is consensual, they’ll both be in legal trouble and likely neither will be allowed anywhere near the younger three siblings. Maya finally agrees, and Lochan is taken away. He’s interviewed by the police, an interview that is vividly painful and humiliating to read (I will give credit for making it feel real, at least; I cringed to read it). Eventually, during a second interview, the police tell Lochan that Maya has broken and signed a document admitting that the relationship was consensual. This sinks Lochan even further into despair, especially after the police investigators (who seem to think Maya’s statement is made out of fear of Lochan, in spite of the fact that everything Lochan says and does clearly telegraphs his concern for Maya and his desire to take complete responsibility for the relationship) tell him that Maya could be put behind bars for two years for consensual incest with a male relative. Back in his cell, Lochan decides that the best solution is for him to commit suicide. If he kills himself, Maya won’t have any reason to continue to tell the truth.
For five heart-wrenching pages, Lochan works out a way to hang himself from some bars in the corner of his cell. Then he does so.
I can’t convey how upsetting I found this. Again, I’ll give the author credit for moving me, but it was simply horrific. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a first person suicide scene…I seriously have no desire to do so again. The fact that the suicide was completely wrongheaded and a horrible, horrible solution to the problem that Maya and Lochan had created made it 1,000 times worse. Lochan somehow couldn’t bear the thought of Maya spending two years in prison? (Not that that was even likely to happen.) How about depriving her of her brother and the person she loved most in the world? How about leaving her with the guilt of realizing (if she does realize) that it was her inability to keep up the lie that lead to this fatal step? What about what Lochan is doing to Kit (who will have his own incredible burden of guilt to bear; it’s Kit who in a fit of pique sets up the mother to catch Maya and Lochan), Tiffin and Willa?
Look, I understand that suicide is (almost) always an irrational act. But once again, and in this case most disturbingly, it’s not presented that way at all. Ultimately, Lochan’s suicide is presented as a romantic act, a sacrifice to save Maya and his other siblings. It’s an interpretation that I think is asinine, offensive and actually, dangerous. I could see teenage girls loving this book. I’m not saying it’ll make them have sex with their brothers or kill themselves, but I will say that I would not want my child to read it, even if she were an older teenager. Not because of the incest, but because of the romanticizing of suicide and the lack of acknowledgment of how twisted Lochan’s and Maya’s (especially Lochan’s) world views are.
The ending is bizarrely and inappropriately hopeful. The epilogue opens on Maya on the day of Lochan’s memorial service, and it quickly becomes clear that after the service Maya plans to kill herself, leaving notes for her younger siblings explaining that she just can’t go on anymore. I was torn between feeling the same about her killing herself as I did about Lochan – that it was a selfish and irrational act, and that she should think about what it would do to the children, the children she and Lochan had supposedly tried so hard to keep out of foster care – and thinking that she actually probably should just kill herself, because, boy, her life was pretty much entirely ruined. Maya ultimately decides that she’ll try to go on – for Lochan – and they head off to the church.
The book ends thusly:
We walk down the middle of the road holding hands, the sidewalk far too narrow for all four of us together. A warm breeze brushes across our faces, carrying the smell of honeysuckle from a front garden. The midday sun beams down from a bright blue sky, the light shimmering between the leaves, scattering us with golden confetti.
“Hey!” Tiffin exclaims, his voice ringing with surprise. “It’s nearly summer!”
What the fucking hell?
I mean, really? Really? You’re going to try to end this book on a note of hope, rebirth, etc. after everything that came before? A story about an unhappy, dysfunctional family whose oldest sibling appears to be at minimum deeply clinically depressed, about two siblings who develop an unhealthy incestuous bond without ever acknowledging the reasons the bond is formed, about a teenager who commits suicide for no good reason, leaving his younger siblings, including the one who was in love with him scarred for life and probably significantly more fucked up than they were already going to be by being raised in semi-poverty by two teenagers and abandoned by their birth parents?
Seriously? I just can’t even…the ending genuinely felt offensive to me. I really have no idea how to grade this book (I feel like I say that a lot, but it’s especially true in this case), but in the end, based on the multiplicity of the problems I had with it and the depth of those problems, I feel like I have no choice but to give Forbidden an F.