Epiphany has a mutilated ear, hair as dark as a raven’s wing and hears voices from God, telling her what to do next. Jerry is incredibly lonely, addicted to celebrity porn sites and never quite sure what is real and what is hallucination. These two young misfits don’t know each other at the start of this book, but they soon develop an uneasy alliance to find out the truth about a stolen Van Gogh painting, sex-trafficking amongst the Hollywood elite and the whereabouts of Epiphany’s little girl before it is too late.
It’s a complicated story that begins in Chicago. Jerry was traumatised by losing his little sister to leukemia when he was 12. He was angered by his parents’ inability to communicate openly about this and started binge-watching TV shows and movies. His father, a powerful PR guru in Hollywood, wanted to awaken some ambition in his son, but then he too died in a car crash when Jerry was 17. Soon after, he started experiencing psychotic hallucinations.
With all this troubling his mind, Jerry creates imaginary friends just like a toddler, except he can’t quite distinguish between real people and those who are mere figments of his imagination. One of his father’s former employees finds him a dead-end job at a museum, but as the story opens, he gets accused of stealing a priceless Van Gogh masterpiece and of killing his colleague in the process. He begins to suspect that Epiphany masterminded the whole thing in order to obtain his cooperation and access to big Hollywood names. The two of them embark upon a strange sort of road trip taking in Mexico, Portugal and ending up in Cannes on the French Cote d’Azure.
The world of sex trafficking was never going to be a pretty one, but Michael Grothaus has a dark, quite unique sense of humour which makes it more bearable to read. The work is littered with sharp observations about our endless appetite for celebrity culture and the monsters it creates. Grothaus is not only the master of witty asides but also makes poignant observations about today’s online culture, how it connects and alienates people at the same time.
Bigger themes are also addressed: such as whether it is ever wise to hide the truth in order to protect someone, and just how free we are to make our own choices. His two main characters act as foils to one another, and neither of them offers the perfect, most truthful interpretation of events. This gives the author ample opportunity to explore the nature of memory, an imprecise instrument which can cheat us at times. He also explores how the same person can mean different things to different people, a saviour to some, a devil to others.
Hard-hitting is a term which has been overused lately to describe anything grittier than Midsomer type mysteries, but in the case of this novel, it is the most fitting description. Dark, twisted desires, two unreliable main protagonists who constantly try to outwit and outmanoeuver each other, and scenes of sex and violence which leave little to the imagination. It may well be too gruesome for those who like their crime more polished and genteel, but Grothaus demonstrates a truly distinctive voice in this debut novel. For those who admired Stieg Larsson’s famous feminine creation Lisbeth Salander, Epiphany Jones will feel like the logical next step: the woman who refuses to become a victim.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars