Those of you who have been scooping with us since the beginning may well remember in my January Reading Round-Up that I was gushing about one of those rare books that disturbed me. Well, today is the release day of that wonderful, terrible title.
This is my deep dive into how much the book meant to me, why I think the shock-value was handled perfectly, and what really got me about the end. As such, there will be plenty of spoilers, so consider this your warning. If you think you are interested in reading the book (which I highly recommend if you have the stomach for it) then you can check out my spoiler free version of the title here.
Content Warnings; animal death, animal cruelty, child abuse, domestic abuse, rape, sexual assault, incest, child death, abortion, religious trauma. (I am probably missing a few in here.)
As you can probably tell from the content warnings, this is not a book for the faint of heart. I was warned before I received the ARC that the content would be deeply disturbing and I was encouraged to tap out if need be.
That's just good advice generally. If a book is having a negative impact on your mental health you should stop reading it.
While I can't say that The Breaking of Mona Hill was beneficial to my state of mind, I can say fully that I am glad to have finished and am deeply grateful to have been granted an ARC. It is honestly on track to be my favorite new release of 2023, and I would be quite shocked if it is surpassed at any point this year.
I say this not because I have a fetish for extreme horror (though I am starting to understand why people believe that about me) but because of the intricate balance that The Breaking of Mona Hill strikes. There are maybe twenty stories I've ever read in my adult life that have both disturbed me and truly made me think. This is one of only three physically published titles to give me that.
The first experience I ever had with a book like that was Jack Ketchum's controversial novel The Girl Next Door. I was not surprised at all to find it quoted in this book, which clearly took some inspiration from the story. Aldridge took a leaf right out of Ketchum's book by using the details of unimaginable horror happening to a teenage girl and using it to illustrate something deeper about the human nature. I think the layers of the story keep these pieces of extreme horror from existing for cheap shock value alone and elevate it into something powerful.
The biggest difference between the two books is who you learn about. The Girl Next Door takes a look at how vulnerable and corruptible children can be before their moral compass has formed. It deals with peer pressure and adult permission in a way that was truly jarring and leaves the reader shaken up about human nature. The Breaking of Mona Hill deals with similar themes and subject matters, but the psychological focus is on the victim instead of the abusers. The questions is asks are about what it means to truly be broken.
The other glaring difference is the level of detail. While I still find Ketchum's work to be harrowing for the style of description and the lens through which the audience reads it, I have to say this for Aldridge; she didn't flinch. When people say that The Girl Next Door is "an unflinching tale of abuse," there is one scene I think of where the narrator finally relents and fades briefly to black to spare the audience. The Breaking of Mona Hill offered no such relief at any point and please believe me when I say I was as impressed as I was uncomfortable.
The book follows Mona Hill, an abused teen in the deep south who was raped by her brother and is looking for an abortion. The political and religious tension is chilling horror on its own, long before things take a turn for the worse. Mona's isolation and helplessness were very palpable from page one, and the audience is offered little in the way of reprieve as the book progresses.
I was surprised, and indeed a bit shaken during the penultimate act of the story when it evolved from a traditional abuse tale into a falsified exorcism. Mona's treatment once she is believed possessed by her family is one of the most grueling things I've ever read in my entire life. It was a terrible thing to be witness to by reading, but it was also such a deep exploration of who she was as a character.
The end is not a happy one in any traditional sense, but it did move me.
There are only a couple paths out of Mona's torture. One is to give into the demands of her brother to run away with him so that he rescues her, only to end up in a potentially worse position as his wife. One is to escape herself. The final, of course, is death.
Though the final act of the book actually sees Mona accepting her fate and wishing to die, I for one was amazed at how resilient she stayed even in the face of every horror the world had to offer. I had assumed from early in that the titular "breaking" would refer to the lengths her brother went to in order to claim her. While I was right, in a way, I had been imagining a bleaker end where he gets what he wants, and the vicious cycle continues for another generation. By seeing how many opportunities Mona has to give into him, and continues to resist, I eventually came to see her death as she did; a win.
It was the sort of book that had me really wondering about my own resolve. It also had me questioning rather deeply what the lesser of all the evils is. It was morally complex, psychologically profound, and depraved to its very core. It is the sort of book that I constantly look for, the kind that can truly rattle, if not break me.