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'Lilith' cuts to the heart of the gun debate and school shootings

Blackstone Publishing

Eric Rickstad's Lilith is one of the most uncomfortable novels you'll read this year. Full of sadness and rage, this timely narrative cuts to the heart of the gun debate and school shootings with a scalpel of words.

Lilith forces readers to look at one of the ugliest parts of U.S. culture, a too-common occurrence that is extremely rare in other countries. This is novel that acts like mirror; it shows you society with love and great insight into what makes us tick, but also with brutal honesty and under a stark, unwavering light.

Elisabeth Ross is a single mother and teacher raising her son Lydan by herself. One morning. Lydan wakes up with an "icky" feeling about the day and begs Elisabeth to stay home. But working mothers rarely take a day off, so even though she wants to stay at home and spend the day with her beloved boy, she takes him to school and gets to work. That day, a man breaks into the school with a powerful rifle and kills a lot of people, mostly kids. Elisabeth breaks the rules and manages to get some of her kids out and then goes back in to rescue Lydan, who suffers devastating injuries that leave him almost dead.

In the aftermath of the traumatic event, Lydan is a shadow of his former self. He becomes strangely haunted in many ways, often talking about dark things and saying he's already dead. After leaving the hospital, the boy spends his days limping around the house with injuries that will change his life forever, taking pain meds to get through the day, and dealing with PTSD. Meanwhile, Elisabeth must deal with bosses that want to fire her for breaking the rules — and with the simmering rage that's threatening to boil her alive. The system is broken. Evil men make money from every tragedy. Elisabeth needs her insurance more than ever and her bosses want to give her a six-month suspension without pay.

Then something clicks. Someone must do something, and she's the perfect person to do it. Elisabeth morphs into a persona she names Lilith, the first wife of the biblical Adam, a woman who refused to serve a man. Elisabeth, well, plans revenge and then must face the consequences of her actions. Is she a hurt, loving mother doing the right thing or no better than the man who shot up the school? The answers to the questions her actions raise aren't easy, and they make the core of Lilith a truly emotional conundrum.

Reading Lilith is an endurance exercise. Lydan's destroyed body and psyche, the unreasonableness of Elisabeth's bosses, and the growing pain and anxiety add up to a powerful novel you can't look away from, but that hurts you with every page. Rickstad, with impeccable pacing and economy of language, delves deep into the gun culture that uses every school shooting as an excuse to celebrate guns and sell more guns. Also, he gets to the core of how misogyny is part of not only that culture but also of everything Elisabeth has ever experienced. As Elisabeth develops her plan and becomes Lilith, the unkindness and abuse history has shown women become something that's always present, and the men who insist on perpetuating that become something she wants to fight against: "They shape the world through violence and conquest, pillaging and rape and genocide, oppression and control; they use their own language to mold a world that's male dominant, male centric, male first."

Perhaps the most powerful thing Rickstad accomplishes here is that he never spells out any answers while constantly presenting the right questions. Yes, we know school shootings are awful and this country's obsession with guns — and the push by some to completely deregulate them — is unhealthy and dangerous, but the anger we feel and the violence we wish upon those who don't seem to care about dead children is no better. The person who shot up the school doesn't matter here; he is a symptom of a much larger disease. Elisabeth and Lydan matter. They are the heart of this narrative, and that serves as a reminder that the discourse exists, but that the people behind it, those who suffer and die as well as those whose lives change as they become caretakers, are more important than any political discussion. This is a brave, timely novel that goes straight to the damaged soul of this country.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on X, formerly Twitter, at @Gabino_Iglesias.

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Gabino Iglesias