I spent some time circling Elizabeth Wetmore’s debut. I suspected from its synopsis that it might be a tough read and wasn’t sure I was entirely up to doing it justice, distracted by the pandemic and politics, but with other titles slipping down the publishing schedules while Valentine stayed in place there seemed little choice but to plunge in. Set in West Texas where Wetmore was brought up, Valentine explores the fallout of a rape through the voices of the women of Odessa, a town caught up in the ‘70s oil boom.
Fourteen-year-old Gloria kicks against small town conventions, rowing with her Mexican mother, spending her Saturday evenings hanging out outside the town’s bar dressed in her best. On Valentine’s Day 1976, she catches the eye of Dale Strickland, an oil worker who invites her into his truck and drives her off into the desert then rapes her repeatedly. Next morning, hungover, terrified and badly beaten, Gloria drags herself to the nearest house. Heavily pregnant and alone apart from her young daughter, Mary Rose is first shocked then angered by what she sees. The police arrive to find Mary Rose pointing her rifle at Strickland who is attempting to inveigle himself into her home. Through the months between Strickland’s arrest and his August trial, Mary Rose will be outcast by the town, subjected to a stream of vitriolic phone calls from men – and the occasional woman – accusing her of betraying the preacher’s son locked up for attacking a Mexican girl. Her recently widowed neighbour, still furious at her beloved husband’s death, becomes her reluctant ally while a little girl makes an unlikely friend. When the trial date arrives, Mary Rose’s anger has reached a dangerous point.
After we all say the pledge and the prayer, Judge Rive pulls a pistol out from under his robe and sets it on his desk. West Texas gavel, he tells all of us
After a harrowing opening chapter which steers clear of gratuitous details, Wetmore builds a picture of this dirt poor town through the interlocking lives of its women and girls. Without oil, Odessa has nothing – farms are hard hit, the landscape while often beautiful is hostile and there’s nothing to do. It’s a town where girls become pregnant far too young, one that women try to leave even at a painfully high cost, and where those who stay try to make sure their daughters have a better future. Transient oil workers spend their money at the local strip joint, a hut parked next to the mobile library in a car park. Misogyny and racism are commonplace but Wetmore ‘s handling of her themes is subtle, slipping them into her narrative rather than bludgeoning her readers with them. Her characterisation is strong: the widowed Corrine – infuriated by so much of what she sees in the town she grew up in – is particularly well done. It’s a gripping, immersive novel, painfully so at times. The court scene had me grinding my teeth, hoping that things have moved on since the ‘70s while suspecting that not much has changed. An excellent debut, hard to read at times but immensely rewarding.
4th Estate: London 9780008331924 320 pages Hardback