Trenton Makes

Trenton Makes by Tadzio Koelb

I read it as an: ARC

Source: my own collection/review source

Length: pp/time

Publisher: Doubleday

Year: 2018

Thoughts: A woman in post-WWII Trenton, NJ, accidentally kills her abusive husband, disposes of his body, and takes his identity. She can do this because he was apparently pretty small and she had worked in a factory during the war making wire rope and was strapping like Rosie the Riveter. She took on his identity as Abe Kunstler, moved to another part of town, went through a string of various odd jobs, and eventually is able to get work at another factory, making wire rope as he had done during the war. Abe has it pretty good until he decides that in order for his ruse to be complete, he needs a wife and child. He meets Inez, an alcoholic taxi dancer, and woos her away from her job at her dance hall. They marry and start to build a life together.  In time, Abe takes steps to start a family. After one on-the-page attempt to get Inez pregnant, the narrative then jumps ahead about 25 years to 1971. Trying for a family apparently worked, because Abe has a son, Art, who has possibly figured out Abe’s secret. Now Abe is determined to hold together everything he has struggled so hard to create.

Spoilers below cut.

Ok. I want to start by saying that there are a lot of interesting things to say about this book. But it has a really odd writing style. It’s something between 3rd person and 1st person. The book was barely 200 pp but it was more like 400 by the time I read and reread everything I didn’t get or misunderstood because of the weird writing style. You do get used to it after a while, but it’s kind of exhausting until then. I like books that challenge me and make me think, but this is too many.

There were obvious issues of gender roles and identity that came into play as well. Honestly, I really don’t know much about women who took on male identities in post-war society. I tried to do some basic research, but all I could turn up was stuff I already knew about how women who had filled men’s roles during the war felt disenfranchised after it ended and the menz all came back and made them go back to being wives and mothers. Like, duh. One part of this is that, throughout the novel, the woman Abe was before had no identity of her own. She was never referred to by her given name. Whatever identity she had was totally overwritten by Abe’s right from the start. Of course, she would want to have Abe’s identity take over hers eventually, after her intentional transformation, but even prior to that, and in flashbacks, she had no identity or name. Additionally, I thought it was weird that NO ONE seems to have missed the woman she was before she became Abe and moved to another part of town, leaving behind everything from her former life. The book indicated she didn’t have any family left, but presumably she still had friends. If one of my friends just disappeared and I never heard from her again, I would call the cops. I don’t understand why no one did this for Woman-turned-Abe. It begs the question of whether anyone would have noticed if it had been Abe who had gone missing. Would someone have noticed if it had been a man who went missing instead of a woman? Was this a common-ish thing that happened, women just disappearing because they took a man’s ID and no one went looking to see what happened to them? In Civil War days, I could see that, but I have a hard time with it in the 1940s/1950s. Maybe I misunderstand how it happened, but since there wasn’t an author’s note in the ARC I had to expand upon this, I’m assuming it probably wasn’t as likely to happen as described here.

Also, there’s a BIG question of consent. It isn’t a thing that’s repeated more than once in the book, but the way Abe and Inez conceive their child is just gross. Spoiler alert, but a shitfaced Inez basically gets raped, and a shitfaced random dude from a bar rapes her at Abe’s urging. No one in that relationship has any ability to give lucid consent, not Inez nor the man Abe  tricked. Why? Why was that necessary to include? They could have been one of many childless couples. It would have prevented a lot of problems and the novel could still have focused on Abe’s struggle to live without being discovered. I don’t know, just that one brief scene really turned me off on the whole rest of the book.

For all the issues I had with this, I do think it would be an interesting book club selection because there are a ton of things to discuss. I didn’t touch on the issues of alcoholism, mental illness, how society treats disfigured people, how society treats veterans, or LGBT issues.

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