‘Mercy is hard in a place like this…
It’s February 1976, and Odessa, Texas, stands on the cusp of the next great oil boom. While the town’s men embrace the coming prosperity, its women intimately know and fear the violence that always seems to follow.
In the early hours of the morning after Valentine’s Day, fourteen-year-old Gloria Ramírez appears on the front porch of Mary Rose Whitehead’s ranch house, broken and barely alive. The teenager had been viciously attacked in a nearby oil field—an act of brutality that is tried in the churches and barrooms of Odessa before it can reach a court of law. When justice is evasive, the stage is set for a showdown with potentially devastating consequences.’
Valentine opens from the perspective of Gloria Ramírez, in the wake of a brutal attack and rape that she has finally managed to escape from, following a night of torture that has left her severely injured and with both physical and mental scars. She immediately makes the decision to take what control she can back from that which her attacker has stolen from her, deciding to cast off the name he has forever ruined for her and rename herself Glory, trying to distance herself from the experience and reclaim her own power. The first place she sees that could be one of refuge turns out to be the home of Mary Rose, whose actions in the wake of discovering the girl on her doorstep are destined to haunt her.
The novel follows the stories of Glory, Mary Rose, and other women within the Odessa community, and how almost everything about their lives is controlled by their husbands and other men within society, to the extent that they have next to no control over their own bodies, and nor are they ‘allowed’ to support other women in difficult situations or speak out with their own thoughts and ideas. The men consider a woman’s place to be in the home and serving their every need – and one of the worst things (if not the worst) of all of it is their perception that a fourteen year old child can be considered a grown woman, thereby making any crime committed against her perfectly acceptable. Not only this, but Glory’s race is used to further dehumanise her and paint her as responsible for what occurred, no matter the fact that she was so seriously injured as to need extensive surgery. The women of Odessa are desperate to escape the cycle of adolescent pregnancy, marriage and violence, but find that mental, physical and societal manipulation and abuse keeps them from breaking free and speaking out.
In deciding to testify in court against Glory’s rapist, Mary Rose finds herself the target of intimidation and slander from the community. She receives a daily barrage of threatening phone calls, where men state their intent to beat and rape her if she testifies, and her own husband adamantly refuses to support her, claiming that she should never have tried to protect Glory in the first place. Where she might have found support from other women, she largely finds only contempt, despite their shared experiences of being a woman of this era, many too frightened of and indoctrinated into a blame culture by their husbands that they cannot offer Mary Rose anything but derogatory commentary for the sake of their own safety. In Odessa, women are not people. They are wives and objects and property; to be seen and not heard. Corrine, who has perhaps begun to escape that world, being an older woman who is (not all too successfully) navigating the grief of losing her husband, becomes an eventual source of support, both for Mary Rose and for a young Debra Ann, whose mother has left her with a father unable to do much by way of caring for her, and is set on making a new life for herself and retrieving her daughter from Odessa as soon as she can.
The eventual court scene is one that I found made me so angry that I had to put the book down and come back to it, because how Mary Rose is treated by the judge and those in the courtroom is so infuriating and so unflinchingly true to the female experience when it’s a woman’s word against a man’s that it was awful to look at where we are today and see that this still goes on; that we like to think we have made progress, but women are still belittled and taunted and not believed in cases such as this. Mary Rose is repeatedly told, in a mocking manner played for laughs by the judge, to moderate her behaviour, to not use ‘bad’ language or that which bluntly addresses what has happened, and to ultimately behave in a way that is less outspoken, more demure and more acceptable by men. He does not want to hear her tell the truth simply because she is speaking out against a man – a man that he has decided has done nothing wrong just by dint of his being male. The whole scene brilliantly conveys Mary Rose’s frustration and highlights the foul nature of the men’s belief in a woman’s place, role, and lack of rights of speech, the judge perfectly content to turn events into a story that fit his narrative.
Valentine is a raw and powerful book, out on June 11th in hardback in the UK. It is an absolutely brilliant and haunting novel, and though it is not always an easy read, I believe it is one that should be read for the issues it highlights and the narrative it explores. Highly recommended. Thank you, 4th Estate Books, for sending me a proof copy!