Book Review: Bruised by Sarah Skilton
PROS:insightful look at PTSD; beguiling MC voice; smartly addresses gender roles and power struggles
CONS:graphic flashbacks may disturb sensitive readers
A deeply affecting, personal story about overcoming your demons and finding meaning when you’ve seemingly lost everything.
A guy walks into a diner with a gun, waving it around, demanding money from the cashier, and hitting her violently when she doesn’t comply. Little does the gunman know, a girl with a Taekwondo black belt is sitting at a nearby table, waiting for her friend. This is the beginning of a Tarantino/Whedon-style waif fu action scene, right? At any second, this guy is going to be dispatched in a whirlwind of flying limbs, blinking stupidly as he realizes he’s been bested by an unarmed teenage girl.
In Bruised, sixteen year old Imogen is that black belt diner patron, but what happens is not the stuff of action movies. Imogen doesn’t save the day with her martial arts prowess; she ducks under a table, and the gunman is killed by police in a shootout. She walks away with a jumble of bad memories and blood-soaked clothes. For most of us, that would have been traumatic, but all in all, the best possible outcome. Not for Imogen.
Imogen lives for Taekwondo. In addition to the sweet moves, she is drawn to the rules and the order it demands. It’s more than a sport or a hobby, it’s a way of life. She keeps her grades up and her room clean, she tries to be respectful of adults, and she commits herself to defending the weak and preventing unnecessary fights. Imogen has a hard time coming to terms with the diner incident, because she knows she could and should have put a stop to it, before the gunman was killed. As bizarre as it may seem, she blames herself for his death. How could she have failed him? How could Taekwondo have failed her?
Bruised is, on its surface, a story about a girl overcoming her PTSD after living through a traumatic event. But more importantly, it’s about losing her connection to the one thing that has defined her, the thing that informed every decision in her life until that point. It’s a bit like a devout believer having a religious crisis of faith. Without Taekwondo as her guiding force, she is unmoored, unstable, and unmotivated to do anything. It goes beyond survivor’s guilt, sweaty nightmares and gory flashbacks. Imogen is actually depressed, retreating from friends, family and school, and she becomes increasingly self-destructive.
This experience could translate to those all important motivators that drive any of us—whether it’s school, a career, a sport, writing, family, etc. Take something fundamental to your sense of self away, and what do you have left?
Dad protests. “You love martial arts.” But I don’t even know if that’s true. I loved what it gave me. And then I hated it for what it didn’t.
I loved Imogen’s broken, damaged voice, and her slightly macabre sense of humor. She manages to be disarming despite doing consistently unlikable things throughout much of the book. It is painful to watch her regimented, motivated life unravel as she sinks further and further into uncertainty and depression, but wonderfully cathartic to watch her truly examine her life at her lowest. It was far from perfect before the diner incident. She has a difficult relationship with her parents (and she certainly carries her share of blame for that), and she’s judgmental of her brother and her friends. Imogen realizes she may have abused the flashier side of Taekwondo before the practical side of it failed her. She achieves a painful clarity about herself that may not have been possible without this trauma.
The book’s heavy subject matter is leavened somewhat by a sweet, fledgling friendship with Ricky, an adorable guy who survived the diner nightmare with her. They go from co-counseling to sparring partners to something more, and it’s impossible not to root for their relationship to survive its traumatic origins. Skilton handles the dynamic between them and their work to get past their joint trauma skillfully, addressing complex issues of gender roles, power and respect in a satisfying way.
Bruised is a deeply affecting, personal story about overcoming your demons and finding meaning to your life when you’ve seemingly lost everything. This book left its mark on me, and I suspect it will speak to any motivated person who can imagine having some crucial part of their life devalued or taken away. Though it is at times a dark, difficult story, it is well worth the challenge.