Consider yourself warned. Me ∧ Emma, the second novel by former Time and People writer Elizabeth Flock, is a tour de force in the telling. But it can be painful to read. This much you might guess from the opening line: "The first time Richard hit me, I saw stars in front of my eyes just like they do in cartoons." The "me" of the title is Caroline Parker, the novel's eight-year-old narrator, and Emma is her younger sister and only ally in the brutal Parker household, headed by their violent loser of a stepdaddy, Richard. After Caroline and Emma's father was killed in a robbery, their mother a woman of dubious maternal skills to begin with emerged from the shock apparently having decided to accept the first dismal suitor to appear at her door. She couldn't have done any worse than Richard. Mean, drunk and unemployed, Richard moves in and takes to beating his new wife and stepdaughters for sport, among other, more creative acts of cruelty. But Emma and Caroline's mother stands out as uniquely awful in her own right she not only fails to protect her daughters, she appears indifferent. When Richard chains the girls up like dogs as punishment for running away, her response is chilling: "Don't fight him,' she whispers, easing her fingers into the links to pull a gap between the chain and my neck. Why you gotta sass all the time? You just bricks weighing me deeper into the river.' " Meanwhile, there are people in their small town of Toast, North Carolina including the shop owner who gives the girls refuge in an after-school job who suspect the worst but fail to intervene.

The novel is buoyed above the gloom, though, by the fresh and even witty perspective of its heroine, who seems to sense that Richard is a broken man and time is on her side. But Caroline is also an unreliable narrator, infusing an element of mystery that sets Me ∧ Emma apart in a way that can't be explained without giving away too much of the plot. Suffice it to say, it's worth discovering. Rosalind S. Fournier writes from Birmingham, Alabama.

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