Inconvenient Daughter

Inconvenient Daughter by Lauren Sharkey, Akashic Books will be published on 23 June, 2020. Keep an eye out for it.

There are times when I stumble across an unexpected delight, and Lauren Sharkey’s debut novel, Inconvenient Daughter is one of those times. It is short, tightly constructed and strikes a wonderful balance between being easy to read, yet weaving together several important themes.

Rowan Kelly grows up in a loving family which is not her own. Adopted from the crib, as a child she can’t understand why she doesn’t share her mother’s curly hair and blue eyes; why she and her brother are both different. She loves her mother but, as she goes through kindergarten and childhood, comes to understand that she has a different mother somewhere, a mother in Korea – her “BioMom”. This, however, is a subject that her present mother evades with tears.

Rowan contacts the adoption agency direction to find out that her biological mother dumped her, unwanted, at an orphanage. And her adoptive parents adopted her – in Rowan’s by now teenage view – as second-best because they couldn’t have children themselves. This turns to open hostility when Rowan compares herself with her also-adopted brother:

At two years old, I thought this was how babies were made. There was a mommy and daddy, and the airport was where children were kept. I didn’t know two people had to decide they wanted children – that they had to consider if they were ready for this. I didn’t know those same two people would attempt to create life with their own bodies and fail. I didn’t know this baby wasn’t my “real” brother.

Real or not, Aidan is the good son of the family, the one who always has the right answers, gets the good grades, and manages not to upset his parents. Rowan is the trouble-maker who tries to date a man older than she; who, on the night of her first school dance, with a broken doorbell:

My concern wasn’t so much needing to know when [my date] arrived, but was born out of a desperate need to prevent Mom from getting to him before I could. With the doorbell to warn me, I could clear the hallway, the stairs, and the living room by the time Mom had stopped whatever she was doing in the kitchen. If Mom got there first, though, who knew what embarrassing things she would say to him in the time it took me to run down the hallway, jump down the stairs, and across the fancy couches we weren’t allowed to put our feet on.

The date goes well, but Rowan comes back well after hours to a blazing row: her mom’s rules are there because Rowan is not her real daughter and, as a consequence, seeks to control every aspect of her life.

Things settle down. The rite of passage that is the prom comes and goes. Her date is another adopted Asian, but they have little in common and, anyway, college looms. Both mother and daughter are stressed, and the weeks pass in a series of fights. But Rowan is offered a scholarship at the college of her choice.

Once there, she befriends Erin, from whom she becomes inseparable – until Hunter steps in. Hunter is a beautiful man, but possessive to the point of obsession. His jealousy soon leads to violence, and, although Rowan forgives him – “the preservation of our love had driven him to violence” – the trajectory is set.

Coming into her second semester, she’s suspended from college for lack of attendance. She goes home only to run away to Hunter. She has no choice but to live as a thief in his dormitory room. The violence becomes regular but when, one day, she sneaks out and bumps into Erin, she rejects her offer of help and defends Hunter.

Nevertheless, Hunter introduces her to his family. Although slow to get started, the visit results in a friendship of sorts with his mother. She encourages Rowan to call her own mother – an innocent conversation that results in another beating, and Hunter insisting to Rowan that “`Your mother is a fucking crazy, controlling bitch.’”

Back on campus, after striking her yet again, he abandons her in their room and goes off to party. Rowan has had enough; she is ready to go. But he returns, drunk, rapes her and dumps her, still naked, on the streets. Rescued by a stranger, her mother comes to collect her, yet Rowan resists turning in Hunter. Instead, she submits to a routine and, as time passes, realises that BioMom is the problem.

Rowan gets the records from the adoption agency to find out that she

was collateral damage–clothes that haven’t made the cut into the carry-on, pictures and ticket stubs thrown into a trash can and left to burn. There was nothing wrong with me – I just wasn’t worth the trouble.

Putting Hunter behind her, she finds a job, completes her education and bumps into an old flame. At first happy, that old flames becomes part of the problem and pivots her into the abyss.

If Inconvenient Daughter sounds anything but delightful, I do not mean the word in the sense of a gift box of chocolates. What is delightful is the skill with which Lauren Sharkey exercises her craft. The novel is far more than a coming of age or rite of passage account. It weaves several threads: of being different, of being adopted, of self-esteem and faltered communications, into a tapestry that reveals the picture, not the stitching.

The violence and lack of self-esteem that drive the plot are signaled. Each chapter starts with a flash-forward to a pivotal moment in Rowan’s life. This is a neat plot device, a foreshadowing that reveals just enough, but not too much. And much of the writing is beautifully understated – “In the bathroom, directly opposite my bed, was my collection of nail polish. By this time, I probably had about fifty colours – I had even paid for some of them.” was one of my favourites, along with, when Rowan attends an all-girls Catholic school:

As we approached the double doors leading to the auditorium, my eyes met Sister Margaret Anne’s. I’d been in her office for smoking in the bathroom two weeks prior, and last month for forging Mom’s signature on a note Sister Joan sent home about my “attitude.”

The internal monologues pack an emotional punch, and the characters are people I feel I’ve met.

The result is a sophisticated, skilled and ultimately a very moving book. For any novelist, it would be an achievement. For a first novel, it is astonishing.