Review: Debut novel ‘Perish’ handles trauma with grace, grit



“Perish” by LaToya Watkins (Tiny Reparations Books) When a family’s matriarch is on her deathbed, they all gather back to…

“Perish” by LaToya Watkins (Tiny Reparations Books)

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

In LaToya Watkins’ debut novel “Perish,” the family begins untangling the rotted, gnarled roots of their tree. Watkins’ approach is as suspenseful as a crime novel, as dramatic as a soap opera, and as familiar as your own family.

The story starts decades earlier as a teenaged Helen Jean, in the midst of a botched abortion, hears the voice of God tell her, “Bear it or perish.” Helen Jean keeps her end of the deal, birthing a son she sees as a monster. Through her neglect, she nurtures the very behaviors she feared he would inherit by nature.

Though the family views secrecy as a way to maintain normalcy and stow away pain, it’s backfired horribly. Abuse, silence and pain scar them, their wounds still festering because they never healed. Perhaps in death, Helen Jean can bring the family together and right the wrongs that proliferated like a tumbleweed through the generations.

“Perish” is raw and deeply upsetting, but Watkins manages difficult, taboo subjects with grace and grit.

She’s also provided a necessary family tree to aid readers. The way the characters sometimes talk about or treat each other, it’s easy to forget who is who’s mother, sibling, cousin or child.

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

There aren’t villains in “Perish,” per se — only hurt people and bad decisions. Though painful, this beautifully crushing experiment in empathy and brokenness is worth experiencing. Watkins and Tiny Reparations Books have made a bold statement with “Perish” and will both be worth watching for what comes next.

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