by Kate Kort
Genre: Literary Fiction / Psychological
Print Length: 244 pages
Publisher: Brick Mantel Books
Reviewed by Nathaniel Drenner
Kate Kort explores the lingering effects of trauma with empathy and insight in Tempered.
Guilt follows trauma. The victim may feel irrationally responsible for the poor behavior of others. Anger follows, too—and can, in contrast, provide a convenient excuse, a washing away of responsibility. The feelings are out of control. The anger isn’t really me. Then the guilt arrives again.
This cycle is central to Kate Kort’s latest novel from Brick Mantel Books. Tempered offers a fascinating character study of a tormented man and the many facets of his recovery. Kort provides an honest, unflinching look at the ways trauma can affect ourselves and our loved ones both.
“I’m squeezing my hands at my sides, hoping I don’t throw up. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, how this pressure is going to escape. I’m destroying everything we have, and in some backwards way expecting relief from it. Like I’m back in high school, picking fights to get hit.”
The narrative follows Murray Henderson, a 29-year-old man from Cleveland saddled with anger stemming from childhood abuse and several other events in his life. After lashing out at his girlfriend, he moves to New York City to start over. Trying to put his life back together, Murray finds a new job and a new therapist.
More importantly, he finds a new romance with one of his roommates, Rahmi, a sweet and supportive man juggling work and part-time college study. As promising as the new start is, Murray soon realizes he is trapped in a familiar cycle. On multiple fronts, the ghosts from his past life in Cleveland refuse to be silent.
Clearly, this plot provides plenty of emotional material. The inner perspectives of Murray, and later Rahmi, excel in their exploration of the wide-ranging feelings and ambiguous truths of mental health recovery. These perspectives collide with the more clinical observations of friends and health care workers. It is tempting to diagnose and to blame, but Kort shows us how the simpler conclusions drawn by outsiders can belie greater emotional complexities.
The therapist, Lamar, is a caring and insightful presence—sometimes acting as interpreter for the reader—but ultimately the characters must sort through and own their feelings. Fully responsible for their actions and shortcomings, they are sympathetic to the reader and, sometimes in an imperfect manner, empathetic toward others. The characters resist simple classification as victim or abuser, supporter or enabler. They are allowed to be who they are: human, in all of their love, sorrow, and struggle.
“My anger’s gone, replaced by burning nausea. I bury my face in my hands. I’m sick. But even thinking that is part of my problem. Just like Lamar said. I think I’m sick, defective, hosting a toxic black shard of my father’s DNA, and I can separate myself from it. It’s no longer my fault. I look up and blink to clear my vision. I still can’t see the plan. I can’t see any way to get from my selfish bullshit to long-term progress. And I don’t think this is what Lamar signed up for.”
Murray’s backstory is covered in Kort’s previous novel, Glass, but readers need not be familiar with the first book to appreciate the new one. It is sufficient to say that an unorthodox type of therapy had not been successful for Murray earlier in his life, leading to greater personal tragedy, including the loss of a second father figure. He is carrying significant amounts of anger and guilt from these experiences, which require a novel of their own to work through.
This work involves those closest to him, and Kort skillfully weaves multiple sub-plots to advance Murray’s story. His friends from Cleveland reappear in his life with their own issues and advice, centered on the fallout from a shared experience of loss. Rahmi copes with a homophobic sister and ailing parents. The sullen third roommate Jemma deals drugs and engages in a toxic relationship of her own. And there are more. Despite the subject matter, the plot does not often dip into melodrama. The feelings the characters experience are organic, complex, and varied. The interplay rewards the reader.
“I think about Rahmi and Grace, how they never seem to let pressure get to them. I think about Jemma, and what kind of darkness she must be living in. I walk past a few broken bottles, their glass shards scattered into the street. It feels like everyone’s dealing with life better than I am, but I don’t know another way.”
But the novel’s strengths can be, at times, its flaws. The prose is dialogue heavy, so characters sometimes seem like mouthpieces for explorations of psychology. A conversation between friends might read like a therapy session, with characters attuned to each other’s feelings beyond what may feel natural. Stakes are raised that quickly resolve in the next chapter; one major sub-plot peters out weakly. Murray’s bisexuality is surprisingly glanced over, despite the book’s setting of the late 1990s.
Regardless, Kort’s novel is an accomplishment. With characters as rich as these, one must wonder if there is potential for a third book—a Murray Henderson trilogy, so to speak. As the narrative so vividly reminds us, there is no easy or absolute end to the effects of the past.
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