Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack
Sticks and Stones was an extremely difficult novel to read, because from the first pages there is a dreadful sense that something awful is going to happen. This impression is compounded by Evans’ vivid depiction of an abusive relationship. The two combine to create a very confronting novel, which is nevertheless compelling and difficult to put down.
This novel is a sequel of sorts to “Broken”, but it isn’t necessary to have read the first novel – I haven’t, and it was nevertheless easy to follow this story and to get caught up in Maddie’s situation. As “Sticks and Stones” opens, Maddie is beginning to enjoy the sense of safety that comes from having escaped her abusive husband. She’s still always alert, but after six years she’s starting to believe she might be safe. Her two children, Sam and Ashley, are growing up in a home without violence. Maddie has a job, and a friend or two. In some ways her husband still controls her life – they’re living under assumed names, so she can’t apply for university (as she longs to), or Centrelink payments, and of course child support is out of the question. But the physical and emotional abuse have stopped, although their effects reverberate on. Within pages, however, Jake has found Maddie and the children. He snatches Sam and Ashley, and two things become clear: he hasn’t changed, and he’s going to make Maddie pay for escaping him for so long.
One of the really chilling things about this novel is that Jake is so very real. Most people will have met someone like him: someone who behaves badly and blames other people for his behaviour; who can be charming to some people while turning another face altogether to others. This is an explicitly abusive relationship, and Jake is the abuser – there are no shades of grey in this aspect of the novel. Because Jake is so real and so familiar, it makes it the more frightening – it’s an escalation of behaviour most people have experienced, and so it’s not hard to put yourself in Maddie’s place.
Maddie is also a very sympathetic character. She’s a victim, but also a strong person, and she behaves and thinks in ways that readers will find easy to empathise with. She initially wants to believe Jake has changed, and later finds it hard to believe how the system seems to favour him. The plot of this novel is relatively simple, but it never feels stretched too thin because of the extent to which you get caught up in Maddie’s life and emotions.
The novel is told from Maddie’s viewpoint, but touches on the attitudes and reactions other people have towards domestic violence, particularly when it is being played out in front of them. Evans doesn’t editorialise on these, she simply allows readers to form their own views based on what is happening to Maddie. She also draws out many of the classic hallmarks of domestic violence and shows how these can further victimise someone: it’s done in private, it’s often hard to prove, people don’t want to believe it, people want to be “fair” to everyone, and by using words cleverly you can make things seem very different to outsiders. Like many abusers, Jake takes full advantage and Maddie struggles to find support and help. I’ve never been in Maddie’s situation, but this feels realistic. The novel isn’t a treatise on domestic violence, but it will bring the reality home to you in a way you may not have ever experienced before. It will make you think differently about the things that happen behind closed doors.
Sticks and Stones is a moving novel that will have a strong impact on most readers. It’ll probably make you feel uncomfortable in some ways, and it’ll make you think about your attitudes to domestic violence and its’ victims. The ending will stay with you for a long time. I’m not sure it’s a novel that you could really call enjoyable, but it’s well worth reading and will be appreciated by anyone who looks for emotional depth in characters and plots.