By Caitlin Wahrer (Viking)
Review by Carl Little
“The dying detective’s house was a tall, dark blue thing with chipping trim and shutters.”
That is how Caitlin Wahrer’s captivating debut novel, The Damage, begins: a simple expository sentence featuring detail and intrigue. In the ensuing story, Wahrer guides us through the trials of a family dealing with a devastating act of male-on-male sexual assault. It’s a keep-you-guessing plotline as justice and the truth are sought, deferred, avoided, and maybe even claimed.
The novel, which takes place in Southern Maine, consists of 84 short chapters, each bearing the name of one of the characters, which include ex-defense lawyer Julia Hall; her husband, handsome and hot-headed Tony Hall, who works in human resources at a law firm; Tony’s younger brother, college student Nick Hall, who is the victim; and Det. John Rice from the Salisbury Police Department.
We are never quite sure whose word to trust, which is just where the author wants us.
The chapters jump between 2015-2016, the period of the rape and subsequent upheaval, and 2019, when Julia visits Rice to review the case.
Much of the novel is devoted to recounting the often-painful family dynamics in the wake of the attack. We are never quite sure whose word to trust, which is just where the author wants us: eager to know more as she plays with our sympathies. The brother-to-brother interactions are especially intense as Tony takes it upon himself to protect Nick.
Through her characters, Wahrer comments on the norms of the day. Reflecting on mandatory sensitivity training, Detective Rice notes that the result is not that “his biases disappeared—it was simply that he noticed them more often and felt like an asshole for it.”
Social media raises its ugly and cruel head as the community weighs in on the affairs of others. On the other hand, the internet “was a beautiful thing from a law-enforcement perspective,” providing all manner of evidence, sometimes unintentionally.
When Nick starts self-harming and worse, he goes off to a program in Belfast called Goodspring to recover. The author is thoughtful in describing aspects of the treatment he undergoes; indeed, the therapists in the book come off as among the most compassionate.
A 2014 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, Wahrer drew on her knowledge of the legal system in writing the book. The maze that is the court system—victim advocates, sexual assault kits, plea deals, etc.—gets its full due as we share the tortuous legal processes with the characters.
Born and raised in Maine, Wahrer knows the territory well.
“…Winters carried some kind of existential melancholy that had to be shoveled away with the snow”—amen to that. And she has a sense of humor: There are several snarky references to a red Subaru Baja, “a distinctly hideous vehicle,” and Shop ‘n Save is renamed “Shop ‘n Overpay.”
On a couple of occasions, this reader struggled to willingly suspend disbelief. A letter to the editor written by the accused, Raymond Walker, seems implausible, not just the fact that the paper ran it but by virtue of its polished content—as if it had been written by, well, a novelist. And one major plot twist may leave you scratching your head even as you smile, perhaps, at the outcome.
When all is read and done, The Damage lives up to its title, providing a compelling look at the terrible aftereffects of a heinous crime. Wahrer knows how to manage the suspense, the first goal of a successful crime novelist.
Carl Little is the author of several books on art. He lives on Mount Desert Island.