Debut novel ‘Perish’ handles trauma with grace and courage

This image posted by Tiny Reparations shows “Perish” by Latoya Watkins. (Small repairs via AP)

When a family’s matriarch is on her deathbed, they all gather in Jerusalem, Texas, the hometown where their unresolved trauma began to crash through the generations.

In LaToya Watkins’ debut novel, “Perish,” the family begins to untangle the rotten, gnarled roots of their tree. Watkins’ approach is as suspenseful as a detective story, as dramatic as a soap opera, and as familiar as your own family.

The story begins decades earlier as a teenage Helen Jean, in the midst of a botched abortion, hears the voice of God telling her, “Endure or perish.” Helen Jean keeps her end of the bargain by giving birth to a son she considers a monster. Through her neglect, she nurtures the very behaviors she feared he inherited by nature.

Although the family views the secret as a way to maintain normalcy and ease the pain, it backfires horribly. Abuse, silence and pain scar them, their wounds still fester because they never healed. Perhaps in death, Helen Jean can bring the family together and right the wrongs that have proliferated like a weed through the generations.

“Perish” is raw and deeply moving, but Watkins handles difficult, taboo subject matter with grace and courage.

She also provided a necessary family tree to help readers. The way the characters talk or treat each other sometimes makes it easy to forget who the mother, brother, sister, cousin, or child is.

Yet each character has a unique voice and feel. As the chapters rotate between Helen Jean, her daughter Julie B., her children Alex and January, and their cousin Lydia, so does the vernacular and syntax. Like Toni Morrison, Watkins handles his characters with deep respect and care, capturing voice in minute detail and trauma in its most distilled, digestible form without sacrificing impact.

There are no villains in “Perish”, per se – only hurting people and making bad decisions. Although painful, this beautifully overwhelming experience of empathy and rupture is worth having. Watkins and Tiny Reparations Books made a bold statement with “Perish” and will both be worth watching for the sequel.

“Perish” by LaToya Watkins (Tiny Reparations Books)

Irene B. Bowles