History of Violence offers little in the way of comfort.
Since the string of allegations and accusations-turned-confessions from a series of powerful, influential men struck a major blow to the patriarchal nature of modern American society, the issue of sexual abuse and sexual violence towards women has become a fixture within the national dialogue. At least that seemed to be the case for a time, as high ranking celebrity after high ranking celebrity fell in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and, going back even further, the horrific Bill Cosby revelations. And while it remains a hot-button issue, we still have an accused sexual predator sitting in the White House, many in Congress and the Senate and now a potential Supreme Court Justice, all of whom have been called out but little beyond that.
For those in Hollywood, the #metoo movement was—rightly so—a career-ender. But, as was revealed in the wake of Anthony Rapp’s allegations against Kevin Spacey, it wasn’t just women who were falling victim. The issue of sexual abuse among homosexuals has largely been overshadowed in favor of the more palatable heterosexual violence, despite the advances of the LGBT community in terms of societal prominence prior to the current administration’s attempts to strip civil liberties of anyone and everyone who isn’t a straight, white male. Édouard Louis’ autobiographical novel History of Violence faces the issue of same-sex sexual violence unflinchingly as it tells the story of Édouard in the wake of a brutal rape that began as a consensual encounter and later moved into something far more violent.
The rape sequence itself is harrowing in its visceral portrayal of victimization at its cruelest and most vicious, Louis pulling no punches as he details the whole of the ordeal. And while this is certainly startling and unsettling, it’s the victimization of the victim at the hands of his family and friends as he slowly unravels that’s ultimately most disturbing. By placing the reader both in the moment and the immediate aftermath, Louis provides a far more holistic overview of the horror victims of sexual abuse suffer. It’s an approach that proceeds matter-of-factly and with an impartial narrative voice that shows the continuous pain caused by the initial attack and everything that comes after.
As he did with his debut novel, The End of Eddy, Louis here continues the slightly fictionalized autobiographical narrative of the Édouard character as he navigates the minefield that is his life in the wake of tragedy and violence. History of Violence continues the exploration of the duality of humanity and our propensity to shift our personal narratives to better serve a specific situation within which we might find ourselves. Édouard’s struggle to come to terms with what happened, explain it to his friends and embark on the stilted legal process of prosecuting his attacker, Reda, an Algerian, with whom he had initially engaged in consensual sex come across in a fully-realized way.
History of Violence offers little in the way of comfort, instead examining the issue of sexual violence, victimization and how the law handles such cases with a clinically impartial eye, making for an unsettling narrative that is as timely as it is disturbing. As he proved with his debut, Louis is a young French author to keep an eye on, willing to explore contemporary issues with a keen eye and a sense of familiarity with the unsavory situations in which his characters find themselves rarely seen. Despite its rather simple narrative arc, History of Violence, due to its subject matter, is a difficult read.