It’s an interesting coincidence that I was IM-ing with a friend earlier. This young woman is a sweet soul, and I love her to pieces, but she has empirically deplorable taste in men. In our entire two-million-person metropolis, she will pick the worst possible guy to date. Seriously, when she tells me she’s met a new guy, I always ask her, “What was this one in prison for?” It’s a legitimate question, sadly. Often, with the benefit of distance, we can see how bad a relationship will be for our friends, even if we can’t always see it for our own dalliances.
I felt this dread for Natalie, the narrator in “Sixteen, Sixty-One,” when she involved herself romantically with her self-aggrandizing sixty-one year-old neighbor, Matthew. They lived in a small English town, so young Natalie was perhaps less-than-worldly. Matthew seduced her with his scorn for the uneducated masses, filling Natalie’s head with Leonard Cohen lyrics and existentialist authors. His intellectual tutorials, naturally, included taking her virginity when she was sixteen. Matthew was a one-man cult.
Natalie didn’t see anything wrong with this at first—she’d bought into Matthew’s “we’re smarter and better than everybody else” thing. When she went off to university, Natalie was exposed to these “lesser beings,” and soon she began to question her relationship with Matthew. Over the course of her education, she moved farther and farther away from Matthew’s grasp. Once it was clear to him that Natalie was immune to his bullshit—and expressly no longer his plaything—Matthew launched a campaign of sheer hatred and vitriol that beggars the imagination.
This toxic relationship is the skeleton upon which “Sixteen, Sixty-One” is built. The story’s muscle and flesh are a girl’s transformation into an independent woman. Natalie makes friends at her English university, and spends her second year abroad at a small, all-female college in rural New York State. As her higher-education progresses, she sees how horrible a mistake she made with Matthew. She also feels increasingly trapped. This horrible thing—a figurative, if not literal rape—was her secret; she had nobody to tell her, “Natalie, this guy is evil and insane! You are the victim here! You did nothing wrong!”
There’s one thing that absolutely bugged me about “Sixteen, Sixty-One,” a simple solution to Natalie’s dilemma. Through her whole collegiate experience, I was begging via my e-reader for Natalie to do this one elementary thing that a woman of her intellect would do.
And then she did. This simple thing—which would be a spoiler—was handled so perfectly (and so much better than I’d hoped), that it made me smile and nod.
There were also two potential endings I dreaded, and Ms. Lucas deftly avoids both. (Were it not undignified in a serious book review, I’d put a smiley emoticon here. Pretend I did, even though I’m supposedly smart, and I use the word “ensorcelled” three paragraphs hence.)
“Sixteen, Sixty-One” refers to itself as “A Memoir.” If this is truly a story of Natalie Lucas’s life—and I have no reason to doubt that it is—she endured a huge, extended psychological attack, and it’s amazing she lived through it without completely self-destructing.
The writing here has a literarily distant feel to me. Natalie doesn’t write as a victim. Rather, she shows a detachment that enhances her story’s credibility. She is an author telling a story, first-person. It is her own story, and it is sad, but she doesn’t beg for our sympathy. Most books relating this tale would devolve into self-pitying mush. “Sixteen, Sixty-One” doesn’t.
The voice describing sixteen-year-old Natalie’s voice obviously comes from a survivor’s future, so we’re spared little-heart-drawings-in-the-margins pseudo-teen prose early in the story. The author’s voice is firm and true, and this book ensorcelled me from the hate-bomb first page through the satisfying Epilogue. “Sixteen, Sixty-One” shows us that evil can live four houses down the street, and we’ll never know how much that evil can affect us, or—once under its thrall—that we can emerge from its beastly shadow.
Most Highly Recommended