Helene Dunbar – These Gentle Wounds

helenedunbar-thesegentlewoundsFive years after an unspeakable tragedy that changed him forever, Gordie Allen has made a new home with his half-brother Kevin. Their arrangement works since Kevin is the only person who can protect Gordie at school and keep him focused on getting his life back on track.

But just when it seems like things are becoming normal, Gordie’s biological father comes back into the picture, demanding a place in his life. Now there’s nothing to stop Gordie from falling into a tailspin that could cost him everything—including his relationship with Sarah, the first girl he’s trusted with the truth. With his world spinning out of control, the only one who can help Gordie is himself … if he can find the strength to confront the past and take back his future.

We’ve all seen the news items or newspaper headlines detailing another family tragedy where one or both parents take the life of their children and themselves. Those stories always leave me shaken as I can’t imagine being so desperate that you take that final step and decide to take your children with you. And sometimes, just sometimes, the children miraculously survive. And I can’t even imagine what that must be like. But fifteen-year-old Gordie Allen does, because he did. These Gentle Wounds is his story, not of surviving, since he’s been doing that for five years, but of the long process of healing he has to go through. In her debut novel Helene Dunbar examines PTSD and how sometimes surviving and getting better are the hardest things there are. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD isn’t just something suffered by soldiers coming home from war, it’s a condition suffered by many people how have experienced a trauma in their lives. Many of the survivors of 9/11 suffered PTSD, as do plane crash survivors, rape survivors, and abuse survivors, to give just a few examples. So it’s no surprise that Gordie has a severe case of PTSD after surviving the near-drowning by his mother in which he lost her and three of his siblings. His symptoms are anxiety manifesting as panic attacks or ‘spins’ as Gordie calls them, fugue states, and uncontrollable spasms in his hands. Gordie considers himself a freak and carries an enormous burden of guilt on his shoulders, because he feels he should have saved his younger siblings. The only anchor he has to keep him grounded in the here and now is his older half-brother Kevin.

The relationship between Gordie and Kevin is central to These Gentle Wounds. I loved these boys together. Kevin is very protective of his little brother, but also carries secrets and guilt of his own. Gordie needs Kevin to keep him functioning, but at the same time I’d guess Gordie has the same function for Kevin, giving him a purpose and to make up for not being there on That Day. The love between these brothers is deep and incredibly genuine, but also horribly complex and complicated. I like that throughout the book the balance between the two shifts, that the relationship becomes more that of equals instead of caretaker/person-cared-for and that Dunbar doesn’t hesitate in showing how much this frightens Kevin, not Gordie.

One of the reasons Gordie doesn’t need to lean on Kevin as heavily anymore is the entrance into his life of Sarah, a quirky girl that is suddenly in his class. I loved their story as on the face of it, it is very uncomplicated—boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, tada magic *jazz hands* But of course, it’s not that simple. Gordie has a very difficult time just believing Sarah might actually truly like him for who he is, not despite his past or because of it, but just for who Gordie is, warts and all. At the same time, Sarah’s home life isn’t that happy either, though due to entirely different reasons than Gordie. But the two of them make a good pair and they are incredibly sweet together.

When Gordie has to go and stay with his biological dad, my heart broke for him. Because we also learn why his mother was so desperate that she did the unthinkable and why Gordie feels he is responsible for it. It never ceases to amaze me how much people, and especially children, take on responsibility for happenings beyond their power of control and how hard it is to break this pattern of thought. While this reconnection with his abusive father is one of the catalysts for Gordie’s start down the road to recovery, the true impetus, which I won’t reveal so as not to spoil it, feels both as poetic justice and simultaneously rather too pat. Still I enjoyed the way it all wrapped-up though and it left me hopeful that the characters were on their way to a good, happy future, with scars that will perhaps never disappear, but which will fade over time.

I think These Gentle Wounds is a wonderful book, which treats a painful subject with clarity and respect. Gordie is a sympathetic and relatable protagonist whose growth throughout the narrative is impressive. Dunbar never avoids confronting harsh or painful scenes, but she does so with a deft, and sometimes even light, touch that keeps the book from becoming overly dark. These Gentle Wounds is an interesting debut novel and I look forward to seeing what Helene Dunbar will turn her hand to next.

This book was provided by the publisher.