Weeble grew up in a home that she was ashamed to bring friends to after hearing her cousins complain that it always smelled of cat urine. Her motorcycle mechanic father, Frank, spent a lot of time in his recliner drinking beer and watching television. Her mother, Mona, expected her family to fend for themselves. Her idea of cooking dinner was putting some hot dogs, chips, and Kool-Aid on the kitchen counter for Weeble and her younger sister, Annie. Frank’s son, Tim, also lived with them, but he was several years older and out running around with his friends most of the time. But not, sadly, at night.
When Weeble struck up a friendship with her classmate Lauren, she was exposed to a whole different way of living. Lauren lived with her Grandma Nan, who cooked meals that were served at a table where the three of them held hands and said grace before eating. Lauren had a lovely little girl’s bedroom and Grandma Nan did not allow her to wear makeup or read novels geared for adults — the kind Weeble’s mother and then tossed aside for Weeble to find and read. And in the summer, Weeble was lucky enough to spend time at Lauren’s house which served as a respite from the horrors she experienced at home. At least, that is, until that horrible summer day in 1982 when everything changed.
Now four years out of college, Weeble is a civil engineer on sabbatical for a year, the recipient of a grant to establish a memorial website devoted to young murder victims. Weeble is determined to tell their story and immerses herself in research about the cases when she isn’t training for a triathlon. Her friends encourage her to get out of her apartment and enjoy life, but that is something Weeble simply does not know how to do.
One morning as she is jogging, she encounters a mysterious man emerging from a dumpster. His eyes pierce and mesmerize her. Soon she encounters him again at the food cooperative, as well as at his gallery where he is preparing for his first exhibit, The Soul Illuminated. Tom Paul is a glass artist, specializing in a technique known as pâte de verre, who explores the juxtaposition of darkness and light in his works. One of his major works is a depiction of St. Sebastian, the third-century Christian martyr. At the suggestion of one of his friends, Tom Paul has placed a mirror where St. Sebastian’s head should be, a stunning artistic statement.
Tom Paul is unlike any man that Weeble has ever known. Her past led her into promiscuity, a symptom of her feelings of worthlessness and survivor guilt. But Tom Paul is determined to cherish her, no longer how long it takes for her to accept his belief in her inherent goodness and worth. Can his love serve as the transforming light that has been missing from Weeble’s dark world?
Author LeAnn Neal Reilly’s first novel, The Mermaid’s Pendant, was an epic re-imagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic The Little Mermaid, full of whimsy, magic, and romance. It also contained some darker elements, but in Saint Sebastian’s Head, Reilly has crafted a story that explores darkness and pain in depth. She studies the impact that childhood sexual abuse and violent crime have on a little girl who was nicknamed Weeble because, like the toys, she refused to fall down. Now twenty-five years old, Weeble is still standing — but just barely.
Reilly tackles her subject honestly and unflinchingly, making Weeble’s first-person recollections of her painful childhood difficult to read, but also fascinating. As she relates the way her parents drank, used drugs, and essentially left their children to fend for themselves, Reilly draws readers into Weeble’s courageous fight to keep little Annie from experiencing the same horrors she had. Weeble became Annie’s protector, even though she was but a young child herself. She longed to have friends and be like the other kids which, ultimately, led to what she perceives as her failure to shield Annie.
As if what happened in Weeble’s own home wasn’t bad enough, Reilly heaps more suffering upon her. Weeble noticed a mysterious man outside their school who looked like a scarecrow. None of the other girls saw him lurking, but Weeble instantly recognized him a few weeks later when she realized that he had come for Lauren. Weeble was not powerful enough to save Lauren, either, and now she lives with unremitting guilt about surviving. Although she graduated from college and began a successful career, the emotional scars have left her functioning at only the most basic levels and her well-being is a constant source of concern for her devoted friends, none of whom know the whole truth about her past. Even Weeble can’t face the whole truth.
Against the backdrop of Weeble’s dark existence Reilly contrasts the artistic vision and spiritual soul of Tom Paul who instantly recognizes Weeble’s inherent goodness and fragility. He is drawn to her, but knows that he must be cautious and patient. Tom Paul’s funky dumpster-diving frugalism and belief in truth is, remarkably, as believable and compelling as Reilly’s portrayal of the emotional abyss in which Weeble dwells. Weeble must confront and make peace with her past before she can embrace her future, but can Tom Paul gently lead her out of blackness into the light? Readers will find themselves fervently hoping so.
Reilly effectively alternates past and present — current events unfold in third-person, while Weeble recalls and recounts the events that have shaped her life in a matter-of-fact, realistic manner that is riveting and horrifying. Strong language and sexual situations are mandated, given the subject matter, making the supporting characters, especially Mona and Frank, realistically flawed and surprisingly sympathetic. Reilly injects a strong dose of what may prove to be her trademark — magic and an other-worldly sensibility. Tom Paul sees others’ auras and Weeble comes to believe that an angel has not only accompanied her on her journey, but warned her about various events.
The result is another book that proves impossible to put down until all of Weeble’s mysterious past is revealed and the question of whether or not she can find redemption is answered. The reason is simple: Reilly deftly makes readers care about her characters not through melodrama or contrivances, but by plainly and unsparingly examining their very human condition. I give Saint Sebastian’s Head my highest recommendation.
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