The Bitter Taste of Trauma: A Review of Christopher Swann’s ‘Never Turn Back’
Note: There are spoilers about the ending in this review.
Christopher Swann captivates his audience in the stunning novel Never Turn Back, a story that powerfully succeeds his first novel, Shadow of the Lions. Following a young man named Ethan Faulkner as he navigates his troubled past and the events that bring it swimming to the surface, Swann does more than craft a mesmerizing murder mystery: he illustrates trauma with the priority being authenticity instead of severity.
When he was a child, Ethan and his younger sister, Susannah, experienced a home invasion signaled by the unexplained arrival of a scared young woman that ended with their parents dead and them hospitalized. The children, both scarred in their own physical and emotional ways, went to live with their stoic uncle. Swann spins the web of his story with chronological events explained and propelled by Ethan’s memories both before and after the shooting.
You see the patterns of the siblings’ coping mechanisms outlast their childhood and extend into the time frame where the bulk of the story was set. Savannah’s tendency to use humor and recklessness to defend herself in high school translates into a young woman who disappears for years at a time and sleeps with the people in her support groups. However, her mental health issues aren’t so easily stifled and a paramount event in the story turns out to not be anything close to what it seemed. Both the supposed and the actual event plays into a larger theme: that of trauma’s effect on our thoughts and experiences.
Ethan shuts down, blocks himself off from the rest of the world and retreats into himself. He’s not very forthcoming, both as a teenager and as an adult. His uncle was similar and his father, before his death, was as well. Swann freezes Ethan in time, his childish worship of his PTSD-afflicted father bolstered by his grief tempting him to only remember the good moments. When the people we love die, how are we expected to hold them accountable for the pain they caused us? Is it even comparable to the pain they cost by leaving us? In Ethan’s case, would it have ever been?
This was not a main plot point, but I found it a significant one. Trauma seeps into your pores and fundamentally alters you as a person. It may not be a bad change, but it certainly never comes without one. However, Ethan and Susannah weren’t just changed: they were negatively enhanced. Their childish qualities were magnified into coping mechanisms, a shield made up of shards of their former selves. Susannah was childishly reckless, Ethan was unreasonably shielded. However, can you blame them?
Swann also delves into the bonds and rifts between siblings. Each extends just as deeply as the other. Ethan and Susannah love and protect each other, but they resent each other with an unmatched fervor. In all honesty, it makes sense: they have no one but themselves and one another. Ethan built only one strong bond with a person outside of Susannah, but he almost sabotages it with his fear. A momentous event that ended in yet another killing provided Ethan with an excuse to run. However, Susannah had given him more than one excuse herself and it begs the question: why doesn’t he?
Because she was his sister. Because he loved her. Because their trauma was shared and no matter how much they resented each other, they understood each other on an unmatched level. And it doesn’t end there. Ethan and Susannah resented each other because they resented themselves. They believed it was their own fault but because both the physical and mental scars remained on both of them, the blame was shared as well.
Swann emphasizes the central theme of trauma, in all its ugly glory, and how it manifests in everyday interactions as well as how it manifests in extreme circumstances. Ethan ends up at the center of multiple scandals before finally, he’s the prime suspect in a murder. He insists that it’s all lies, but he gets suspended from work and the police start sniffing down his neck. All of this stemmed from a breakup that was initiated by Ethan’s inability to open up.
However, the normal, albeit beautiful woman who seduced her way into his life turned out to be anything but. Ethan must reconcile these mounting events with their growing connection to his pitch black past. After one particularly outrageous claim, the woman turns up dead and Ethan must conduct his own investigation in order to refute the popular belief that he was responsible.
Swann’s emphasis on family loyalty outside of the typical constraints is interesting, to say the least. Ethan’s uncle defends his family because they are family and it’s hard to believe that there’s any other reason for it. Swann doesn’t just fulfill the cliche “family comes first” quota; he illustrates a love language between father-figure and children, one that is spoken through support. Be it financial, legal or maybe not so, or anything else, Ethan and Susannah’s uncle is always there for them.
Throughout the story, Ethan has moments where he seems almost unhinged; yet again, Swann’s deftness in describing the mind-addling pain Ethan must have been in is breathtaking. He highlights understandable responses to unimaginable events and makes the reader wonder “Is it really him?” It’s fitting, really, this curiosity. We give what we get and if all else fails, what’s left but revenge? The answer is found throughout the story and I feel that it’s more complicated than it seems. Clearly, Swann does as well.
I find the ending to be the most fitting of all. Savannah, as expected, vanishes once again and Ethan is left with everything back to normal. Before she goes, Savannah leaves him one last gift. It’s a familiar name and an address. When he reaches the house, a child and his mother are playing out front. She’s pregnant, she seems happy. She doesn’t recognize Ethan at first and only when he’s driving away does she realize who he was: the boy’s house she’d barged into all those years ago, begging for help. She was the beginning and the end, Ethan’s cover to cover.
The woman—Kayla—signifies closure. Swann includes this in the ending, an otherwise grateful, yet melancholic conclusion, in order to show Ethan’s eventual recovery in just a sentence. He’d gone through a lot, but his resentment has finally faded. His memories would never leave him, but in those last few sentences, the reader sees the long and happy life that he was finally content enough to create for himself.