Friday, August 24, 2018

THE DEVOTED, by Blair Hurley: A Book Review

The Devoted
, an accomplished and moving first novel by Blair Hurley, is the story of two journeys of self-discovery and liberation woven deftly into one. The first follows the stumbling, unskillful and sometimes perilous path of Nicole as a fretful and rebellious schoolgirl into young womanhood in her native Boston; in the second, we find her mostly in New York City, a distraught, unhealthily dependent and emotionally rootless young woman searching desperately for substance, purpose, and spiritual meaning in her life.

We first get to know Nicole at the beginning of the second of these two stories, already in the iron grip of the man she calls her “Master,” a predatory and, we soon discover, an emotionally and sexually abusive Zen roshi--the teacher to whom she submits her entire being in the search for what passes for spiritual refuge from the vicissitudes of her life. As she recalls, in alternating passages, the stories of the childhood that has endowed her with a legacy of crippling insecurity and self-doubt, the Master hovers, a dark, clutching and seemingly inescapable presence over her every effort to come to a sense of individuality and freedom.

We learn the story of that childhood, at first in snatches and glimpses, through Nicole’s recurring flashbacks and the partial stories she allows herself, gradually, to share with two confidants: the strange, generous, and awkwardly loving man who courts her affections; and, later, a seemingly protective woman friend--and eventual betrayer--who watches with apparent sympathetically over her emotional lurches and missteps.

Nicole reveals herself, acknowledges herself, only reluctantly, deeply shamed by her past, unforgiving of its wounds, and unable to shed an overwhelming sense of guilt. Brought up by a distant father and a demanding and unstable mother whose only emotional support is a kind of frenzied Catholicism, she rebels against the Church—at this time, in Boston, in the throes of its own sickening scandals of abuse—and, to her mother’s dismay, develops a lasting passion for Buddhism, immersing herself in every book she can discover and devour; and soon sets off on a runaway road trip that leads her through sex, drugs and homelessness to eventual tragedy.

In the meantime, as this tale unfolds, we have been following  Nicole’s emotionally fraught attempt to escape the clutches of her Master by establishing herself in New York—an effort as disastrous in its own way as the wreckage of the childhood she has now left behind. Friendship and intimacy elude her; she spurns the superficial social intercourse that makes living tolerable for those who are content with its surfaces; and spins ever further out of control. It is eventually the icily sadistic commands of her Master, bringing her on the telephone to the point of death and, perilously, back, that confront her with the need to take responsibility for herself.

The Devoted is a short, compelling read and, its brevity notwithstanding, is unafraid to tackle big issues without simplification or evasion. It exposes the potential of religious orthodoxy—whether Catholic or Buddhist—to degenerate into the exercise of male domination and exploitation of the innocent. It explores the difficult territory of gender differences in one young woman’s prolonged struggle to acknowledge and assert her personal power. It delves into the problematics of family ties, between mother and daughter, father and daughter, brother and sister. It takes us through the heartbreak of betrayal and loss, and investigates the narrow ground between devotion and dependency, between spiritual fervency and unhealthy addiction… In the end, it manages to bring Nicole to the most welcome, sacred and eventually satisfying of all refuges: love. 

The Devoted is a good Buddhist lesson, too, in its acknowledgement that turmoil and suffering are unavoidable in our lives, but no less impermanent than every other aspect of the human experience. Tough as it is, Nicole’s story bears out the wisdom of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, that there is an end to suffering; and offers her a way forward, through imperfection, toward a happier, more hopeful, and more enlightened way of being in the world.

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