Circle Nine

Circle Nine - Anne Heltzel When I come across a book that deals with a subject matter that's so bleak, where the character has to walk a hard path towards redemption in an internally damaged mindset, it usually gets to me depending on how well its written. Many times, I may not like who a character is or the things they do, but if I can understand where they are physically, emotionally, and the surrounding aspects of their lives that contribute to the state of mind they're in, I can follow their story, sometimes even be moved by it. But being able to write well about a character so inherently damaged, especially through their direct perceptions, is a difficult thing. If done well, it can stay with a reader for days, leaving them to think about the trials and circumstances long after they've turned the final page, even consider the psychological underpinnings of their decisions, thoughts, and ideals. If done poorly, it can come across as offending, appalling, even offset the message the writer conveys.Asking me whether I loved "Circle Nine" is probably akin to asking if I would like to have my wisdom teeth pulled willingly. For all intents and purposes, I probably should've hated this book. Heck, even considering the aftermath of it, there were things I did actively dislike about this book that I didn't agree with in portrayal, but I think it had something quite constructive to convey when considered as a whole.I don't like reading about passive or submissive characters, I don't like reading about abuse and cognitive manipulation, and if I read about characters mentally and emotionally manipulating a psychologically damaged character, I rage quickly. This book features those elements and quite a bit more. Even thinking back over the scheme of events, readers will probably find the fact that the protagonist of this novel so willingly accepted the things around her (at first) that it seems unrealistic, but I'm going to play the devil's advocate with saying that it's horrifyingly accurate in portrayal. It's clear from the commencement of the work that Abby's a teenage girl who carries a lot of emotional baggage. She's young, though showing a lot of naiveté for one her age, but considering the trauma that's ultimately unveiled in this work, I thought it was convincing. The challenge of "Circle Nine" poses itself in trying to uncover Abby's identity through the lens of her damaged mind - not so much delving to answer the "what" as much as the "why". It doesn't shy away from shifting tones - from an active sense of deluded, whimsical contentment and jealousy, to guilt, horror, and numbness, in a kaleidoscope of various minds and perceptions Abby takes on as the pieces come together. Anne Heltzel writes the psychological undertones of this work spot on for the most part, but it takes a bit of wading through some frustrating turns to be able to see the fruit it has to bear. It's more or less what you're able to take from it.The story commences when Abby wakes with no memory of who she is or any other facet of her identity, though she seems to recall basic knowledge (facts, figures and such) well. A boy her age, Sam, claims to know her, even after she's survived what seemed to have been a fire, judging from her sooty clothes and the burning building she's near. The two flee in the measure of creating a new life, living inside a cave, shielded from the outside world in what Sam describes as the dangerous "Circle Nine," an active allusion to Dante's Inferno. Abby accepts Sam's interpretation in almost a cult-like fashion, and the two have what could be the definition for a trainwreck relationship. Both are emotionally dependent on each other, and there are obvious cues that suggest that Sam is under the influence of drugs, infrequently tender towards Abby and mostly a raging, manipulative and needy jerk who keeps her around to exert power over her. But we only get a limited scope of what this relationship is really like through Abby's eyes in the beginning - she doesn't recognize it, but the reader does, and I think this disassociation is intentional. Abby does have the active perception that things are wrong in her world, but she seems unable to reach out and change them - whether by the limited scope of her being able to reach out of her dreamish mindset, or out of fear (or both) it can be challenging to say, but Heltzel makes it clear that there is something wrong with the perception Abby has - in Abby's own voice. There's another added element to this relationship when a girl from Sam's past, Amanda, enters the picture. Ugh. This part of the book frustrated me because Abby takes on a mad jealous streak that doesn't make her endearing at all, but at the same time, Amanda really isn't much better, as she actively berates Abby - calling her stupid, crazy, any sorts of terms. But I think as time goes on, Amanda realizes the truth of the relationship between Abby and Sam, and it's noted to the reader how Amanda learns how horrifying the manipulation goes even when Abby is only partially aware of things. The events following in what happened to Amanda didn't surprise me, but it still made me consider a lot of things as to how far Sam would go to keep his relationship with Abby intact, as well as how far gone Sam was in his own mentality.The second part of the book was a much stronger, constructive add to the story, as it shows Abby realizing the truth of what happened to cause her amnesia, and making more of an effort to get out of her abusive situation. It involves a sequence of memories surrounding her true identity, her family, her actions, and Sam being a small part in it. In truth, Abby doesn't know Sam as well as she thought she knew him, and the way she's found and the way her condition comes to light in her recovery is plausible. I probably felt more for Abby in this part of the book than the former because it shows how she cognitively deconstructs at her role in the tragedy, and the negative affirmations in her head are brutal, yet realistic. I think Heltzel handles the underlying psychological issues Abby has with sensitivity, and concludes the novel in a way that's appropriate - Abby herself wants to try to reclaim her life on her own terms, but it portrays her as having a long way to go, with a flawed mentality that doesn't suddenly revert itself immediately. It's somber, yet somewhat optimistic.This is neither a dystopian work, romance, nor a fantasy - it's realistic fiction portraying a relationship of abuse, cognitive dysfunction, and the road to recovery for an emotionally damaged young woman. I wouldn't say this was a mystery either, at least not a strongly constructed one, because the elements in the novel make it obvious as to how certain events are, but you're not sure of the why in only a few measures. I'm hesitant to recommend it only because I think there will be a fair amount of readers who will think Abby is insufferable, the style of the storytelling is convoluted in a way that might be confusing to the reader. In my view, at least from what I was able to take from Heltzel's writing, Sam was never meant to be a romanticized character, but rather an idolization/dependency in Abby's mind, as she notes in the latter part of the book, who still seems to grip her even when she's removed from him.This was a difficult book for me to read - despite being a work that immersed me enough to read (listen) to it twice in a 48 hour period - Heltzel's prose was vivid and smooth and I would check into her other works, personally to see if she could write something stronger than this. I understood where "Circle Nine" was coming from and took from it some of the constructive insights it had to offer. However, I still think it could've come across more than what it did to create a better connection to Abby's trauma in the reader's mind, and playing up some of the tensions in a smoother format that still manages to show the break in Abby's psyche and the eventual road to recovery.Wonderful audiobook narration by Julia Whelan.Overall score: 3/5