The Hanged Man

By Francesca Lia Block


(Note: This review contains major spoilers.)

You and I are damaged goods. We were born into a world where the sins and weaknesses of others have bruised and buffeted us, and where our own sin natures have led to painful cuts and permanent scars. Some of the deepest wounds have come from those who were supposed to love and protect us, such as family members who, rather than following the path of the One who created us all, have chosen instead to take on life’s temptations and snares in their own strength, and have failed miserably.

Although told from a non-Christian perspective, this novel by popular YA writer Francesca Lia Block poignantly illustrates the damage that can result from choosing darkness over light.

The Hanged Man opens, rather appropriately, in a hospital, a place of healing. Yet it is also a place of dying, an event that has brought Laurel to sit in a waiting room while her father slips from life. There is another person in the waiting room with her, a cadaverous stranger that counsels, comforts, and attracts her in the span of only a few moments. They exchange names before Laurel heads back to where her mother sits with her father, but Jack’s parting “I’ll see you” is rife with hidden meaning.

After leaving the hospital, Laurel drifts through an almost dreamlike existence, filled with symbols culled from her memories and her current experiences. Most of the symbolism revolves around the Tarot deck, and Laurel struggles to understand her identity and that of the others surrounding her through the cards.

It also becomes evident almost immediately that the feelings associated with her father’s death are not the same as one might normally expect from a daughter. Her memories of him focus on his power, and she even wonders if perhaps he has somehow been transformed into the raging animal in the truck she and her mother passed on their way home from the hospital. Throughout the narrative he is always present either in recollection or as a hidden figure that somehow colors everything in Laurel’s life. After a while, the reader begins to understand that Laurel’s relationship with her father was severely twisted, and the effect it has had on her has been devastating.

Laurel’s journey from emotional deadness to the start of her healing is peopled with characters that are in many ways as lost as she is. Her mother imagines herself to be a witch; her best friend, Claudia, copes with her soul’s bleakness with drugs, alcohol, and casual sex. Some appear only on the fringes of Laurel’s life such as Perdita, a small child of one of the frequent partygoers whose name actually translates from Spanish as “little lost one.” Jack’s entry into Laurel’s life has been pivotal, and he becomes the catalyst that helps her face her past. Yet the reader is never quite sure whether he really exists or is simply a product of Laurel’s imagination.

While Block’s writing is engaging and powerful, her dark tale of a daughter’s recovery from incest will undoubtedly be too raw and graphic for most Christian readers, and especially for younger ones. As in the 1980s movie Less Than Zero, the author unveils the depravity and hopelessness of members of the perennial party crowd, people whose way of coping with their inner emptiness is through drugs and sex. Block takes her readers down the rabbit hole into a world where sexual encounters, sodomy, bondage, homosexuality, substance abuse, and dabbling in the occult are vividly portrayed and seen as acceptable ways of dealing with life’s stresses. The use of both mild and strong profanity throughout the book is just one more reason why most Christian parents will probably find this “teen” tale highly offensive.

However, despite the multiple negative aspects of the novel, its stark realism should serve as an important reminder. Many of us strive hard to create a zone of safety for our children, a home where God is honored and where our family can thrive in an environment of care and Christian love. We keep an eye out for what our kids are watching on television, what kind of books they are reading, and what sites they are visiting on the Internet.

Yet as positive, appropriate, and necessary as this behavior may be, we can sometimes forget that there are other families out there on the opposite end of the spectrum to whom our actions would seem strange and restrictive, hedonistic households where almost any parental guidance is deemed intrusive, and where children are expected to navigate the dangerous waters of growing up practically on their own. In some of these homes any spirituality is okay as long as it doesn’t involve God, since acknowledging Him would open up the door to too much personal accountability.

When we get too comfortable in our Christian bubbles, we run the risk of ignoring the fact that there are many lost children out there, both young and old, who desperately need the light of God’s love that we are called to share.

Image copyright HarperCollins. Review copy obtained from a local church’s used book sale.

John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, the US Review of Books, and more.


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