Author’s note: there are spoilers in this review.
Any writing must explain itself or you wonder what the reason was for writing it. As you read any writing, it is only natural therefore that you try to find answers to the questions in your head (raised by what you are reading) – fictional works included. As such, as I read Sarah Doughty’s Home several questions were bounding around in my head: How can someone with a crisis of identity and a sense of displacement become a home for restless souls? Is race and kind only a human construct; can animals be racist – towards humans? What is the true meaning of home? These questions, and the answers Doughty provides to them will form the premise of my review of Sarah Doughty’s Home.
Home is the gripping tale of the becoming of Angela Ines Williams, a young African-American Librarian and Guardian. Angela doesn’t realize until this third instalment (the first two being Just Breathe, and Focus) that she has extra-human powers – a heightened sense of smell, ability to tell when someone is present in a room that she isn’t present in or who is calling without looking at her phone – “My phone dinged but I ignored it. Liam’s jacket could wait,” (62), but above all, she discovers she is a Shamaness with extra powers – “… a very rare breed … (with) the ability to cross between our plane, and the land of the dead,” (38). As she realizes these extra-human powers, Bugs, her cat, drags her into the Spirit Realm, and she realizes, apart from being Guardian to Aisling and Connor, she must also save the Spirit Realm – the place where ghosts go after crossing over. As she battles the neutrals who fire her on trumped up charges and set about killing her for helping Aisling and Connor, she also battles several other things: the ghosts and wraiths in and from the Spirit Realm under the control of Renata Crane; a sense of being ‘damaged’ by her mother as a child; acceptance by her werewolf lover, Salvatore Manziel; discrimination by a pack of werewolves (Cleansers) for being with Salvatore, and identity crisis as human/wolf.
Now to my first question, how can someone with a crisis of identity and a sense of displacement become a home for restless souls? For psychologist Erik Erikson who coined the term “identity crisis,” consciousness is a result of psychosocial and psychobiological development. The typical developmental stage for identity formation is adolescence. It is a period when Identity Cohesion versus Role Confusion is at stake. If a psychological or psychosocial crisis occurs and identity cohesion is not achieved, then the person is said to be in “identity crisis”: the person has unresolved crisis in the conceptualization of basic identity, basic ego, and basic “I” awareness. Angela says her entire life was “a structured chaos.” According to her, “it was bad enough to emancipate myself at sixteen … I wasn’t entirely sure why my mother did what she did, or if it would have really killed me as I believed. But I was sixteen, and she was supposed to take care of me. She failed. My mother didn’t regret forcing me to be her guide when I was sixteen, knowing it could have killed me, (44, 55). What her mother puts her through leaves Angela conflicted and confused about her identity – often times, such confusion that can result in tragedy. And for a while in Home, tragedy appears ineluctable when Angela is unable to extricate herself from the conflict between who she is and who she is supposed to be. It is obvious in Home that Angela’s identity crisis is occasioned by the various conflicts in her life. She says, “… whatever it was that was happening to me, either those enhancements that made me more like a wolf without actually being one, or my talents as a combination of clairvoyant, Shamaness, and Siren, I wasn’t just a human. I wasn’t other, but I was different enough that I didn’t count myself as a human,” (Chapter 43, p 169). This is a crisis that threatens to consume Angela as it throws her into the war raging in the Spirit Realm, while she is struggling to come to terms with her identity. Consider this: at some point in the narrative she is in conflict with her mother (who, under the influence of Renata Crane, is threatening to take her Shamanic powers by killing her), a group of corrupt neutrals (who want her dead), Cleansers (who are hell bent on exterminating her and her new ‘family), and Renata Crane (a “woman devoid of any morality or sense of character, who uses Voodoo,” (194) who simply wants her dead as her existence threatens Renata’s disruptive plans for the Spirit Realm and the human world) – conflicts that drive her into a change necessary for the restoration of her sanity and the chaotic world around her. Conversely, it becomes obvious Angela’s awareness of her true self will be essential to the eventual achievement of self-actualization, and this is what Doughty sets about unraveling in this gripping tale – Home.
Summing up her own nature Angela says, “… Outside, I was organized, careful, and always in control — at least of myself while the rest of the world crumbled around me … Inside, I was a jumble of nerves, a worrywart, and constantly struggled to keep myself in check … But I didn’t expect a simple revelation to send my walls crashing down around me, leaving me open and exposed,” (Chapter 1, p 7). Angela considers herself an abomination – “Many times throughout my life I heard about abominations … just because of the color of my skin,” (96); and it is obvious this has had a telling impression on her sense of self-worth. “I wondered why a man like him would ever want a woman like me,” “I’ve been alone for so long that it’s difficult to grasp that any of you really want to be here. Because of that, it’s hard to accept that you love me. I know you do. It’s just, after everything I’ve been through, I continue to doubt that I’m capable of being loved,” (112). As a result, Angela is a closed character who aims to protect herself and her insulatedness – “He reached out and scooped me up in his arms like I weighed no more than my cat. He carried me into my bedroom and set me down on my bed before carefully removing my flats,” (Chapter 2, p 15). Notice how she uses the possessive pronoun here – something she does throughout the novel. Also, even when there was no need for it, her mind reminded her of her stamp of untouchabilty “Liam’s entire nest of vampires and humans were dressed expensively in black, as they always were. And it made me look like a homeless person,” (Chapter 4, p 23).
The idea of herself as a homeless person reinforces the idea of displacement in the novel that Doughty discusses at various levels, but especially with the disturbance in the Spirit Realm. I enjoyed the irony in this aspect of the narrative – the displaced ghosts yearning for placement seems like a self-defeating cause as it strains against their present obsolete need for a steady location. That is until you consider the Spirit Realm as a place that is “neither heaven, nor hell,” but some form of purgatory. In whatever form, statelessness cannot be a thing of joy. That is why this irony is amplified when Angela tells the wraiths, after freeing them from the powers of Renata Crane who sent them to kill her, “You are not welcome here. This is not your home … I free you from the binds that place you under her control … you’re okay now. Leave this place and go home,” (Chapter 22, p 92). What home? The Spirit Realm? A place, as Angela describes, in which, “… the light was dim as if dusk was giving way to twilight and left everything in shadows, but still bright enough that everything seemed lit with sepia tones. In the distance, I could see buildings that looked dirty, like no one bothered to clean anything in decades or more,” (Chapter 2, p 13). A place “Without a sense of time, I couldn’t fathom how long I was there. The sun — or whatever light source covered the realm in a peculiar sepia light — didn’t move, the place was in a constant state of after light, like the sun set over the horizon and the rest of the sky was darkening. Time seemed frozen,” (Chapter 10, p 50). A place where “Deep shadows cast over everything and even the bits of trash that littered the dirty street looked devoid of most of their color,” (Chapter 47, p 182). A place that reminds me of, and creates the imagery of the creation narrative: “In the beginning, when God began to create heaven and earth, the earth was unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water,” (Genesis 1:1-2). A place that connotes a sense of coldness, darkness, desolation, despair, and loneliness. A place that brings to mind those moments of despair when you feel lost, when you see no order in the chaos of life, and when you feel as if you cannot go on. A time you cannot go on because in these dark moments, the most appealing answer is death. Except, the ghosts in Home are already dead. But there is hope – a light, a source of illumination that doesn’t make much sense in the creation narrative, since it’s not until 13 sentences later, on the fourth day that we are told that God created the sun, the moon, and the stars. Do you see the correlation between these two narratives? Can you imagine after the fighting in the Spiritual Realm, some messiah sent the Arch Angel and his fellow rebels back ‘home’? But more relative, what is the light in the creation narrative? Where did it come from?
Obviously it wasn’t light or illumination from the sun or the moon or the stars. It was something more – a kind of supernatural light – a divine life force. To overcome her crisis of identity and sense of displacement, Angela had to find her life force. Life force is important because it represents part of your experience of being in the world. It is a power that runs through your body. A power that is neither inherently good nor bad. The question then is, how will you use it? For what purpose will you use it? Will you invent your own purpose and apply it there? Will you justify your attempt to harness it based upon your own high ideals, your great thoughts or your altruistic ambitions? If so, it will elude you and deceive you. It will corrupt you and work against you. For Angela, it is a metaphorical essence that becomes a home to others, one that restores hope, while destroying dark forces like the manticore, the possessor of the essence of ghosts like Ghost King, once a powerful Shaman and Angela’s grandfather (193). We see the final indications of this light restored in the Spirit Realm is the restoration of Dead Girl, Emma, and the appearance of Gramma, Aisling’s grandmother who warns them of Renata’s imminent plans to hurt Aisling. Surely the Spirit Realm cannot be a terrible place if Ghost King and Gramma are in it. Hope you see the connectedness between the two narratives that I see in them. Angela is able to resolve her crisis of identity by locating her essence in her own strength of character, and her powers as a Shamaness, which are complemented by the love and guidance of her adopted family – Aisling, Connor, Liam, PeterSalvatore, Shadow and the other characters in Liam’s home – that consider her one of them.
This brings me to the second question that arises from my reading Home is, Is race and kind only a human construct; can animals be racist – towards humans? Most of my reading (of other sources) suggest race, as an identifier, is a human construct because racism is more than just prejudice, it implies a power relationship. The term “racist” is often mistaken for “prejudice” – two terms I don’t find acceptable, but two terms that contain a nuance of difference. I may be wrong, but animals are not self aware to the extent that such a mental construction has any bearing to them. Being “racist” is a conscious choice that implies intent, rather than an instinctual response. Again, I stand to be corrected, but I believe animals run primarily on instinct, and thus what they do cannot be “intentional” in the way we humans make choices. This is what fascinates me about the race issues raised in Home. Are the Cleansers aware of their prejudice for Angela in their wolf form, or do they become aware of the difference when they shift? I ask this considering what Salvatore says about leaving his adoptive pack: “I was only with them for about nine months. It took that long for me to gather the means to leave. They almost killed me for wanting out. If not for my dominance, they would have.” I am aware animals do “discriminate” based on whether something is a member of their identified group, but it’s not based on a mental construct. It is a function of competition, predator/prey relationships, or instinctual behaviors. for instance, within species, competition between groups can arise. However, this is a complex web of instinctual behaviors, not a choice based on preconceptions. Nicholas considers Angela an abomination – “She is neither a werewolf nor the same race as you. This abomination cannot live.” (96); it is obvious Nicholas has the same dislike for Angela as the men from George’s bar: “He straightened and his face reddened in outright rage. Suddenly, I understood the type of man he was. He was the kind of man that wanted women beneath him. No rights. No say in anything. He expected dinner on the table, and a compliant wife, if the asshole had one. It made him a racist, too. I was a woman and I was black. A bad combination for me. Men like him were raised in a very particular environment. The passage of time, in a place like Nashville, did nothing to change that,” (Chapter 15, 69). The fact that Angela is turning makes no difference to Nicholas, a Cleanser. Salvatore tells Angela Cleansers are “…bigots … their mission is to find couples. Others. If they were different, in any way, they eliminated one or both of them. They want to keep the gene pool of others as pure as possible … You haven’t been exposed to this world for long, so you don’t fully understand that. Danger follows us,” (101). It also didn’t matter to Grayson (another Cleanser) who sentences her to death for “… mating with a man that is neither your race, nor human …” (Chapter 54, p 203).
Let’s go back just a bit to proceed with this discuss. What does Salvatore mean by keeping the “gene pool of others as pure as possible,” is it a cause to save the werewolves or others in general, or is it a cause to prevent werewolves from mating with other were-animals? Salvatore himself says a child can be born a were-animal. But what would the child be if the parents were different were-animals? Is this a case of assortative mating – where individuals prefer to mate with those with a similar genetic makeup, genotype, and those with similar features as a result of these genes, phenotype? Angela is half wolf, but a human woman. Can this potentially be seen, therefore, as implicit racism, but one that extends beyond skin color and ethnicity to include similar body type? Or is it all down to color/race? Linda Michaels, the dog psychologist and trainer says, “Although a dog may appear to be “racist”, that’s not possible. Racism requires complex thinking and other higher cognitive functions that canines simply don’t possess.” She adds that a dog may appear or behave in a racist manner because of “Insufficient positive associations in early socialization to people of all races.” But in Home we are dealing with werewolves – even if they are sentient. So, I ask, when Nicholas voices his racial contempt for Angela as a shifted werewolf, is it a carry-over from his thinking as a werewolf? Salvatore says, “You’re okay now. You’re home,” (55). But more crucially he remembers her as his mate even in his shifted form, so can there be carry-over thoughts? Could Salvatore’s own initial rebuff of Angela be a case of repressed racism? I know this is fiction, but Nicholas’ hatred of Angela rouses interesting thoughts. Let’s not forget he says, “She is neither a werewolf nor the same race as you. This abomination cannot live,” (97). Let’s not forget that Salvatore is of Hispanic descent, and let’s not forget that Nicholas could be of foreign extract, “His skin was practically glowing for a moment before it dulled to his normal dark skin tone. He was either very tanned, or possibly Middle Eastern. His eyes were a honey brown and his raven-colored hair was cut short and spiked,” (Chapter 23, p 97). This, and the fact that most of the non-human characters in this novel are sentient, is what made reading this novel a fascinating experience for me – for instance, Bugs and Salvatore can read Angela’s mind. If they can read minds, can they process racist thoughts?
The last question I will focus on in this review is, what is the true meaning of home? Is it even possible to define home? What does Salvatore mean when he says “Breathe, Angela. You’re almost home,” (Chapter 7, p 37)? Webster’s Dictionary defines home as “a place where we live, a place of residence.” However, this defines a house rather than a home – home is what’s on the inside. At least, this is what I take away from reading Sarah Doughty’s Home. The novel provides us with many definitions for, and associations with the word ‘home’. It associates home with feelings of comfort, security, and love. For instance, Peter says, “I’m just happy to not be alone anymore,” (169). In Home, home is a place of protection from unknown things in the world. When Angela finds herself lost in the Spirit Realm, she starts to search for something she hopes. “… Would take me home. To my body. To Aisling. To Salvatore … I was pushed here without my guide. I don’t know how to get home,” (Chapter 10, p 49 and 51). Closely related to this, home is where you were raised – a place related to childhood memories, favorite dishes, and traditions – think of the Welsh word hiraeth. Interestingly, Aisling, Angela, Connor, Liam, Salvatore, and Shadow don’t have fond memories of a happy home. Home for her is the place where she was able to become herself both physically and mentally. For Angela one of such places is the Library. She says, “It was my sanctuary. Up until a few weeks ago, it was a place I thought was more of a home than my house … Salvatore was right. I was home in that small town with a very strange assortment of friends that were better family to me than my real family ever was. But it didn’t mean everything I loved would always be a part of that home,” (Chapter 14, p 64). Quite true, because moments later after being fired from her position in the library, she says, “By the time I reached the double doors and pushed through them, I was smiling, feeling free for the first time in my life. There was the craziness at home,” (Chapter 15, p 67). The last part of this quote obviously refers to her biological home, but the fluidity in its relevance to the library, her current home, and the society is something I couldn’t resist noting. In all contexts – craziness reigns in her home. In the novel, home is an environment that may affect a person’s behavior and mental wellbeing. For instance, when Angela can neither move nor speak she finds comfort in Salvatore whispering to her, “You’re okay now. You’re home,” (Chapter 12, p 55). Home is the feeling that greets you when you walk through the door. Doughty ortrays home as a rock solid foundation that you take with you whenever you leave the physical home – a place made up of experiences, that is, moments of your life that helped to teach, and consequently, change you. For that reason, home is also people and when home takes on a human form, it is called family. Salvatore reminds Angela during the course of an argument “Be with me,” he whispered. “Right here in this moment. You’re home. Don’t shut me out.” (Chapter 17, p 77). Angela returns the favor later when she tells a brooding Salvatore “This is your home, too … and I don’t want you to leave,” (Chapter 20, p 84).
In Home family is a relative term – nothing to do with blood, but rather something defined by relationships. According to the author, this is due largely to the nature of the supernatural world, just about everyone is without a home. From being able to stay in one place, stay alive, and have a family or significant other – even Liam’s nests are smaller than traditional ones before the Earthens died. When Aisling’s grandmother died, Angela became her family – and her Guardian. Aisling also becomes Angela’s family when Angela ’emancipated’ from her parents – “Aisling was right, Angela. You have a family here. You are home. Right where you need to be.” … Salvatore … was still there. Holding me while I cried like a girl. Giving me what I needed, even though I didn’t want it. Didn’t feel like I deserved it. My heart felt like it was about to explode with as much as I loved him in that moment. It wasn’t just Aisling I would die to protect anymore. I clutched him tighter and nodded as I breathed, “I’m home,” (Chapter 13, p 61). I have a feeling whatever happens in the future, Liam’s home will be a foundation for Aisling, Angela, Connor, Peter, and Shadow because it is an environment with people who have helped these characters to construct better versions of themselves and taught them how to live. After all, home is where the heart is. It is a place that brings back good memories, it is the symbol of comfort, rejuvenation, self-discovery and wellness: “Very well, my dear. I will leave you to it. Enjoy your new home,” … Goose bumps broke out on my skin at his words and I froze. Home. Straightening, I looked up at the space that surrounded me … I was home. “Angela, you will always have a home. Right here in this library. With Aisling, Connor, all of our friends. With me. You will never be alone again. You are my home.” Above all, home is that place in your heart where those you care for find solace: “You’re home, Angela.” … Breathing Salvatore in, I sucked in a shaky breath and let his warmth envelop me. Then I let myself relax. I was home. I was right where I needed to be in that moment. And I wanted to stay in his arms forever,” (Chapter 7, p 37). “No matter where you go, you’re my home,” (157). This is what makes Angela’s thoughts as she reemerges from the near fatality of a possessed Salvatore attacking her very poignant, “… I pulled myself by my nails. Tore at the darkness. Fought against it. And I didn’t stop. I wouldn’t stop until I found my way back to my friends. They were my home. And I would never leave them behind,” (Chapter 35, p 144). Curiously though, and in spite of what has gone before, Angela is still using a possessive noun when she and Salvatore return to ‘their’ home towards the end of the novel – “we ran out my back door,” (217)
Reading Home, you come to the realization that certain things in life make you happy – but what makes us happiest is finding a home. Angela says, “… I didn’t consider myself among the humans anymore. I never fit in with them. Never felt at home. In the company of vampires, ghouls, werewolves, and Earthen witches, I felt more at home … I was more other than I would ever be human. By the time I pushed through the doors into my library, I was grinning like a loon as one thought crossed my mind. Home,” (Chapter 33, p 136). That is why the opposites the adoption of Peter creates, “a seven year old child in desperate need of a home,” (150) is the saddest moment in this novel. Angela says to Peter, “You have a home now. With me, Salvatore, and all of our friends. You don’t have to worry about being alone again, okay?” (Chapter 43, p 170). But at the point Peter finds a home, Shadow’s loneliness, as an Alpha wolf without a pack, is reiterated. “As the werewolf stepped back, Aisling pulled him into a hug, but not before I caught the look of sadness on his face. Her aura swirled with orange and dark blue. From what Liam told me, Aisling’s perception of Shadow was right. He was lonely, and he hid it very well,” (Chapter 37, p 152).
There are several other things I love about this novel and Doughty’s writing: subtle name inferences like Angela; Nicholas; The fact that Robertson – is a woman beater (69); Doughty’s attention to detail – “I took the gun from him and, though it was too light to have one, I glanced on the underside to make sure a magazine wasn’t inside. Then I pulled back the slide to check for a bullet in the chamber. Finding none, I released it, pointed the gun at the wall and pulled the trigger, releasing the firing pin,” (120). Some may not consider this as important, but think of the opposite – a writer who doesn’t pay attention to detail. Also, those who followed the trial of Oscar Pristorius will also appreciate the point I make here; Angela’s last thoughts after being attacked by Salvatore – “How odd it was to find my home. To finally find a place I felt accepted and loved. Only to have it ripped away in a matter of days. That was the last thing I thought before I died,” (141). The irony of this makes powerful reading; Doughty’s use of suspense – “She’s coming for Aisling. You need to warn her. Protect her.” (217) When Gramma says this to Angela right at the end of the novel, you know there is more to come. But this isn’t just the point, every word, every action are carefully thought out – I find words, actions from the two novellas, Just Breathe, and Focus, words and actions from Just Breathe and Focus linked to and explained further in Home. I love the sense of continuity in these series as it makes it easy for anyone who hasn’t read the previous instalments to know what has happened previously; I also like Doughty’s use of intertexuality – Bugs as Sphinx (53), the manticore (32), and the Spirit Realm; The character of Liam fascinates me – his show of love just warms my heart: “You have my book?” The vampire’s green eyes flashed and he nodded. “I made arrangements with your publisher for an exclusive early release and obtained enough for every member of my various nests, plus about twenty additional books per nest for visitors.” He waved a hand. “I probably didn’t order enough.” (113). I liked Dead Girl and her ability to read Angela’s mind (50); I am rascinated by Doughty’s witticism. For instance, when Aisling says to Angela’s mother, Estelle Williams, “I’m going to have a look around your mind. I won’t hurt you.” (58); and Salvatore’s response to Angela’s question, “Where the hell have you been all my life?” – “Looking for you,” (114).
Lessons: I learnt that “Ghosts could get scared,” (Chapter 2, p 14); that Ghosts don’t breathe (47); that werewolves don’t pick a mate if they don’t love first. (111); and I learnt about bloodlust in were-animals – “The need to hunt,” (172).
Last thoughts: this is an enthralling read. I loved reading this novel because it presents a balanced psychological study of humans, were-animals and others, the pace is quick, the presence of danger is relentless, the description of places and people is vivid, and the narrative is eloquent. This is a novel from a writer who knows how to tell a good tale. Besides, just when you think Aisling defeating the demon, Bilu, in Focus was huge, Doughty throws us a live grenade – battles with bigoted Cleansers, a possessed mother, a voodoo priestess who uses astral projections, a headless manticore, ghosts, and wraiths across realms. Finally, it’s not just Angela’s using of otherwise ungodly powers in the Spirit Realm, but her using them in a realm that is otherwise the realm of God that also fascinates me in Home.
Rating: 5 stars.