The novel Once You Go Back by Douglas A. Martin begins with the sentence, “Pretend you are my sister.” What follows is a stream-of-consciousness account of growing up in the US South. We listen diligently, sometimes asked to be his sister, as he tells his story of what it was like to be a young gay boy and man, while living with an abusive step-father.
I have to step in here and be completely up front – I have never liked books that are told in the second person. The narrator was talking to us, asking the reader to be the ears of his sister, but never do we get any accurate characterization of that sister. I have to say, this book was one of the more successful second-person narrations I’ve read, it still bothered me a lot of the time and I thought a more traditional narration would have been better suited to the story.
One of the things I did love about this story was its fluidity. The stream-of-consciousness worked well and while I would have liked more concrete details about the life of our narrator, it gave a certain importance to the details were given. Because we are to read this narration as a man remembering his childhood, the stream-of-consciousness reflected this well.
Ultimately, my biggest concern with Once You Go Back is that I’m not convinced it is a novel for young adults. I don’t want to get into the debate about what a young adult novel actually is, because all I mean is that I don’t know that the majority of young adults to whom a book like this is marketed would enjoy reading this book. If I think back to when I was a young adult, I’m fairly certain I would have passed by this book or if I had started reading it, I think I would have given it up. Part of it is the distance of the narrator from the time period he is narrating. He is too old, he has too much insight. He might be difficult to relate to. Or maybe I’m projecting my own feelings on the potential readers of this book.
Ultimately, I’m not disappointed or sad that I read Once You Go Back, I think it is extremely successful and a beautifully told novel. It is a glimpse, and that is all it really is at 140 pages, into a difficult and tragic life. It’s such a stark incongruity, the ugliness of everything that is being told and the beautiful language.