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Broken by Daniel Clay: My take on the book behind the movie #book2movie #review

The film based on the book hits the states July 18th so I'm reposting my take on the novel by Daniel Clay in case you want to give it a read before the movie comes out.
 "'Skunk, Skunk. Wake up, beautiful darling.'
   Archie, my father, holds both my hands as he says this. I sense his words rather than hear them:'Skunk, Skunk. Wake up, beautiful darling.'   I also sense his life now.
   It seeps through his palms into my palms. It deadens the blood in my veins. My heartbeat slows. I shudder. Poor old Archie. This is the way that his life is. I see it. I feel it. I know it. Tonight from midnight through to two in the morning, he will sit all alone in the front room and watch a video of the day I was born. Almost twelve years ago now. There I am. You can see me. A wrinkled pink sack of flesh that does little but lie on its back with tubes feeding into its nostrils. Not a lot different to now then.  
These are the opening lines of Daniel Clay's Broken. The pace grabbed me from the instant I started reading and didn't let up until I'd finished the book, spent with emotion from the unrelenting force of Clay's narrative.  This is what I posted quickly to GoodReads in lieu of a review:
An utter page turner that punched me in the guts. I found it both incredibly moving and disturbing.
I haven't changed my mind about that one bit!

Here's the overview of Broken from Barnes and Noble:
Until that fateful afternoon, Skunk Cunningham had been a normal little girl, playing on the curb in front of her house. Rick Buck­ley had been a normal geeky teen­ager, hosing off his brand-new car. Bob Oswald had been a normal sociopathic single father of five slutty daughters, charging furiously down the side­walk. Then Bob was beating Rick to a bloody pulp, right there in the Buckleys' driveway, and life on Drummond Square was never the same again.
Inspired by Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird, Clay's brilliantly observed and darkly funny novel follows the sudden unraveling of a sub­urban community after a single act of thoughtless cruelty.
Clay takes us from those opening lines - from Skunk lying motionless in a hospital room, back in time to see what she saw, to witness with her the inciting incident and the series of events that follow.  It all begins when she sees her neighbor, Bob Oswald, beat Rick Buckley to a pulp in his driveway. Buckley is a gawky, brooding nineteen year old whom Oswald's five daughters love to pick on but, it's the 13 year old, Susan, who accuses Buckley of having sex with her. We quickly learn  that Susan is actually a virgin; she invents the lie about having sex with Buckley - which her dad immediately sees as rape - in order to prevent getting a beating herself. While Susan and her sisters are, hmmm what to call them - sparing you the epithets I'll just say not very bright and not very nice - they are sharp enough to know which side their bread is buttered on and how to play their dad for all he's worth.

Because Bob Oswald is two things if nothing else; a blindly devoted father quite playable by his daughters and a raging maniac when he's angry. Anyone saying anything, anytime about his daughters can make him angry. A single dad with a chip on his shoulder, alchohol at the ready, he's all too happy to believe his daughter has been raped and wail into the guy everyone calls a wierdo.

That's what starts it all. That beating sets the wheels in motion, the ripples are endless, affecting almost everyone in the community. And while Buckley responds by retreating more and more into himself, and his home, Skunk becomes more morbidly curious. For awhile it's like a wound she can't help touching. Only when Buckley is taken by Social Services to a secure mental health facility for awhile does Skunk forget.

Story-wise, I'll leave you at the start because I don't want to spoil one moment of this intensely gripping page turner.  Along the way, I found myself laughing in surprise and recognition - Clay has an uncanny way of tapping into the humor of everyday life; there is humor even in the deep disappointments and dark places. And tears. Plenty of tears which is understandable when you think of Skunk's age. Despite the cover; this is no kid's book.

Over the course of the novel,  Skunk grows into an average 12 year old girl entering 'secondary school' (middle school to most Americans) and encounters a rush of feelings; her fascination with Buckley, her crush on her teacher, her fluttering feelings for the new boy in town, her hopes for her father's happiness (her mother walked out on her father, Skunk and her brother Jed), her need for her father's love. Average but so loveable and good-hearted which just makes the story stab a little deeper.

I particularly appreciated how Clay's style, with its staccato sentences, pushes the story along. He has a way with dialogue, using clipped sentences and simple language, that sounds completely natural. Whether it's the family bickering and quiet conversations, the street language, the blunt and foul words in the mouths of babes, it all flows with authenticity which is often both alarming and funny.

Clay also uses repetition to great effect throughout vis a vis this example when Skunk's father, Archie, goes to visit Rick's dad to see how things are. Rick has just come home from a mental ward.

"        'You OK, Dave?'
         Mr. Buckley felt his cheeks redden.'Oh yes, fine, fine.'
         'You sure?' 
Mr. Buckley looked at Archie Cunningham. He thought, Archie, I know you mean well, but there's nothing you can do , so why don't you leave me alone?                                                                                                             
'Yes,' he said. 'Everything's fine.'
          Archie Cunningham looked at Mr. Buckley. He thought, Jesus, I know I mean well, but there's                 nothing I can do' I wish I'd left this alone.
          He said, 'Well, OK. But if there's anything I can do, we're only across the square.'

          'Thanks, Archie. You're a pal.

But things are not fine in Mr. Buckley's world, not at all; Clay seems to be saying how sad and insular we humans are at our core, desperate to keep our inner pain and disappointments on the down-low, unwilling to let others in, let them truly see us; how in that process when we disconnect from each other and the world around us, we set a dangerous precedent in motion where anything can happen.

Another driving force in the novel is the actual physical makeup of the book. It's chapter-less! I don't know that I've seen that before. In any case, since the publisher didn't tell me when to stop I tended to read and read, stopping only when I had to, either because I had something else to do or because I couldn't read through my tears anymore.

I asked Daniel about that in our Q&A.  I'll post the entire interview tomorrow, including his explanation of the To Kill a Mockingbird connection; I hope you'll come back and read it.

Broken is definitely a page turner.  It's unusual in that it has no chapter breaks, no rest stops. Is there a connection?
Yes, I think there's a connection; the lack of natural stopping points gives the novel a sense of pace I don't think it might have otherwise. I did it for three reasons - with the novel I'd written before (which was never published), I'd given it to a couple of friends to read and they'd each read to the end of chapter 1, raved about it, then never read on: I remembered that when I sat down to write Broken and just decided no-one was going to have the chance to do that to my writing this time around. Secondly, I just really felt I struggled to write those killer lines that wrap up one chapter and make the reader want to turn the page to the next one - however, really, that must be in my head because each double-return in Broken is really the end of a chapter, to my mind, so I think I was just trying to take the pressure off myself a little simply by doing away with chapter numbers in-between. And thirdly, I love concept albums where there's never a break in the music - especially when they end with the opening bars of the first song and make you want to listen all over again - and I wanted that sort of feel to the book, that it was a circle, starting with Skunk in the same scene as the one that closes the novel without any natural pause in-between. 

My take? This was a tough book to read; and yet I couldn't put it down. The awfulness of the awful series of events packs an awfully big punch but so too did the characters' lives, with all their foibles and flaws, their push and pull, their failed efforts to help themselves and each other. If Rick Buckley is 'broken', so too is Bob Oswald, so too is Skunk's dad Archie, so too is the mental health system and society at large.
Broken, the film based on
Daniel Clay's book
won the award for Best
Indepent British film!

Will this book make a good movie? Yes and it has been! The award winning film comes out Friday, March 8 in the U.K. where it was nominated in several categories for a BIFA - the British Independent Film Awards.  Adapted for film by Irish writer, Mark O'Rowe and  directed by British stage director Rufus Norris, Broken won the BIFA for BEST BRITISH INDEPENDENT FILM with Rory Kinnear winning Best Supporting Actor for playing Bob Oswald. The movie stars Tim Roth as Archie, Cillian Murphy as Skunk's teacher, and Eloise Laurence as Skunk. If and when the film comes to the US, I'll be there watching. I'm keeping my finger's crossed that someone like Harvey Weinstein has it on his radar and picks it up for US distribution. And I hope it plays well over there so we get a chance to see it over here!

UPDATE: The film IS coming to the states ... watch for it July 18th.
Tomorrow I'll post the Q&A I did with the very generous Daniel Clay; I think you'll find his responses as fascinating as I did.