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Invisible Chains

Thanks to the Mid-West Book Review for permission to reprint (the review at MWBR can be found here.

Invisible Chains
Nora Penia
Xlibris Corporation
436 Walnut Street, 11th floor, Philadelphia, PA 19106
ISBN: 1401031420, $18.69, 261 pages, www.amazon.com

"TO ALL VICTIMS OF ABUSE -- for their fear, suffering, and hopelessness; their hope, strength and courage, their escape, recovery and renewal; their challenge to change society."

It is customary to begin a review with a representative quote or two from the book in question. This amiable convention is deemed to provide the prospective reader with a taste of the book unseasoned by the reviewer's peppery opinions and prejudices. Of equal but less-widely understood importance, it also affords the self-aggrandizing reviewer the opportunity to select quotes that support those soon-to-be-unleashed prejudices and opinions. The above passage, from Nora Penia's sturdy first novel, Invisible Chains, duly serves both these functions. What makes it noteworthy as well as quoteworthy is that it comes not from the text, but from the dedication page of this psychological drama cum mystery. You've gotta admire a writer who can stake out her territory, define her terms, and announce her intentions all before page one. It only remains to add that the abuse in question is spousal, both emotional and physical, and you've got your bearings.

Maddy Tyler is the director of Face to Face, a small agency (besides Maddy there is fellow-counselor Darcy, and Anne, the idiosyncratic secretary) set up to provide counseling services to (mostly) women in abusive relationships. The story centers around Maddy, who is being stalked by the aggrieved husband of one of her clients, and two of those clients, Gillian and Laura, both trying to figure out how to deal with their abuse (one physical, one emotional). Penia's understated style is immediately accessible and well fitted to her serious subject matter. The reader enters into the crisis counselor_s world from the first sentence, and from there it is an easy step off the curb into the no-traffic-signs world of the abused women themselves. The building blocks of Penia's narrative are the group session, the crisis call, the anecdotal reminiscence and the sudden, wholly non-gratuitous violence that is all the more shocking because it is so clearly inevitable. You know what the book is about; you know the author's style is rigorously realistic, you know it's coming, but still you can't quite believe it when it does. It seems absurd to talk about "gritty realism" in what is so unabashedly a "women's book", but there it is--no frills, no romance, no punches pulled.

The stresses of working as a counselor are portrayed with equal, if less-gut-wrenching realism. Sentimentality is just not a color in Penia's pencil case. There is no glamour in being the director of Face to Face, with its one-window offices in a Florida strip mall. Both Maddy and Darcy are stressed out before the story begins, and have few illusions about the day-to-day struggle and depressingly low success rate. "I knew I would probably never hear from her again," is Maddy's refrain after another crisis caller shies away from the truth--her way of acknowledging the cold reality while at the same time reminding herself not to get too emotionally involved. At first Maddy refuses to take her stalker seriously--until she gets a dose of her own medicine from the appealing Detective Connor, who provides police support as well as a genial romantic interest. In an ironic twist, Maddy realizes that by denying the seriousness of the threatening letters she is making the same mistake her clients do when they deny the seriousness of their abusive relationships. No one is immune, Penia seems to be saying--nobody wants to believe it is happening to them. Maddy is a low-key heroine, but she is a heroine indeed, and quickly steels herself to face the truth. Together, she and Connor come up with a plan to entice the stalker into a trap--although, in series of hair-raising scenes, things don't go exactly as planned.

The stalker plot provides a nice framework, and will satisfy the mystery lovers' passion for detection, but it never threatens to overrun the author's main battlefield--the misery of abuse and the need to end it. As promised, I point to the dedication to affirm that this book was clearly written for abused women, not only to tell their stories, but to encourage women still in abusive relationships to seek help. For this reason, much of the book is given over to descriptions of what it is like to be in an abusive relationship. We get Gillian's and Laura's stories in full detail, and representative snapshots of the lives of half a dozen others (including one man). Penia's unemotional style nonetheless imbues every word her characters speak with emotional truth.

Curiously, this emotional truth does not always translate into the most life-like of characters. Anecdotal storytelling, though it serves the purpose Penia uses it for (accurate and honest description), leads to a stilted view of the characters. We know what happened to them, but we have little sense of their personality, of whether or not we would actually like them if we were sitting next to them on an airplane. It's a trade off I'm sure Penia made gladly; her choice to focus on the problem rather than the person. It's not like she can't do solid characterization: Maddy and Darcy, whom we see struggling with the day-to-day problems of job, family, and future, are well-drawn and three-dimensional.

If there is any unexpected weakness in Invisible Chains, it is perhaps that the anecdotes becomes repetitive--not in terms of their specifics, but in terms of their tone. After a while, the submissive attitudes of the abused women, and the rationalizations they fall back on, begin to grate on the nerves, especially because they are not explained. Again and again, the abused spouses fail to stand up for themselves; they allow their husbands to dictate whether they will go to work, go to school, make a phone call, or watch TV. Although it is hard to admit, in the face of Penia's earnest attention to detail, this leads to a lack of interest in the characters. One understands that the psychological pressures--the invisible chains--placed by the abuser around the abused over time, along with constant compromise, can wreck havoc on a person's judgement and identity. Maddy herself provides the lone example of what a woman "should" do when confronted by an abusive spouse. Her first husband was abusive--once. When he assaulted her, she left--pregnant and penniless and powerless though she was. While Maddy's actions somewhat offset the inaction of the others, still there is no explanation of what caused her to go one way, and those others to go another. Of course, once again Penia provides her answer early on--this time in the title of her book. But the fact that the characters themselves don't know how it happened does not remove the reader's desire for enlightenment. Those invisible chains needed to be a little more corporeal for the average reader.

That said, there can be little doubt that Penia made a conscious choice to avoid excess discussion of "why" and "how," for such discussion would have led to an analysis of social morays, sexual politics and the like, which would have taken the focus off the women themselves. As it is, her message remains clear--abusive relationships are bad, they are the fault of the abuser, not the abused, and they should be ended. Worthy issues such as what the abused spouse could have or should have done, how abusers play on social conventions that allow men to be jealous, aggressive, and dominant, and how women are raised to believe that any man is better than none, are not even hinted at. Penia is not writing about causes, remember, but about symptoms, writing a book for abused women in the hope that some of them will read it, see themselves or their spouses, and take steps to get out.

Penia, a writer who lives in southern Florida, has many years of working with abused spouses under her belt, and boy does it show. Invisible Chains is a do-it-yourself diagnostic tool for abusive relationships. It_s also a well-paced and frequently riveting story for the more casual reader. Don't let this reviewer's interest in and admiration of the author's mission scare you off. Penia understands the difference between proselytizing and shining a spotlight on a dark area of human experience. Her sense of moral responsibility only makes Invisible Chains all the more satisfying.