My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It is a testament to Aleksandr Voinov's skill as a writer that he can draw me into a novel that features boxing and an alternative 21st Century world where slavery is de rigueur . As far as boxing goes, I have mostly shied away from boxing stories in literature and film. Which is odd-- I'm not in the least deterred from martial arts, gangster or military works. It's not the violence that has turned me off, but perhaps it is that I haven't found much that's lyrical about the sport-- Ali's poetry, aside. And, I have mostly avoided slavery in literature and cinema because as an AfAm it has always been a reminder of a painful past that has personally affected members of my family-- and me, as well.
Thankfully, I did not allow my aversion to boxing tales and slavery to deter me from reading and enjoying Counterpunch. I don't know...perhaps it is the combined presentation of these two themes that help me set aside my reservations and to look at the issues in the novel more objectively. The snippet I read about the novel was intriguing, as was the by-line, "Fight like a man, or die like a slave."
I'm still digesting Counterpunch, though, so I don't know that I have any insights to share in this review. But there are few things that I have been pondering as I formulated this response.
Hmm, first I must say, though, that I was not familiar with the Belonging-verse that author Rachel Haimowitz created, and in which Counterpunch is set. Though I intend to wrap around and read Haimowitz's previous Belonging-verse works, Anchored and Where He Belongs, I'm kind of glad that I resisted reading them first. Experiencing the world from Brooklyn's point-of-view was like a shock to my system that didn't wear off until the end of the novel. Though really, I shouldn't be too shocked about a modern world where slavery exists-- because our present day is full of examples of human trafficking that we tend to ignore, or at least, I have. If you dig a bit into global news online you will find countless accounts of modern day slavery, from child temple prostitutes in Asia to the exploitation of domestic and agricultural workers in the US.
I think it also worth to mentioning that fairly recently some U.S. professional athletes have likened their careers to a form of slavery (which certainly isn't comparable to the horrors of other types of slavery, but does speak to the commoditization of people, and athletes, specifically-- an underlying theme in the story).
On to a few things about the book.
The Fitzhughes group that not only owns Brooklyn's boxing contract-- but also owns Brooklyn, prides itself on providing the convicted criminal a "second chance." What value is a second chance like this though, when Brook is under control of his boxing promoters, unable to decide his fate outside of the boxing ring. It seems that Brook only has control of his body during a boxing match, and he has even less control of his body as the conglomerate that owns him literally prostitutes him out to the monied public.
I know that boxing (and other sport) programs in prisons have had some success as a ticket out of the penal system and into a supposed more-respectable place in society. But I have to wonder about a penal system that would use boxing, a decidedly violent sport, as a means for "rehabilitating" an alleged violent offender.
As I consider the theme of redemption in the book, I asked myself, did Brooklyn believe more in his own self worth or the ethical worthlessness of slavery? Because our Brook may submit his body, but is unwilling to submit his soul to the idea of being, and remaining, a slave. He is certainly a victim of unfortunate circumstances, and those circumstances have brought him low, but he still fights back, though, mostly with his fists (is that where his empowerment lies...or in his belief in himself?). I never felt that Brooklyn needed to redeem himself, but perhaps he had been convinced of a need for redemption by his captors, or the guilt he felt over the accident that landed him in this precarious situation.
Now, the relationship between Brook and Nathaniel. Hmm. Of course the wee little parts of my heart (ok, they really aren't that small...) that love when two virile, sexy men get together...and together... were having a field day with Counterpunch. There was no lack of that sort of(yummy) thing. But on a more serious note, I guess there's a judgmental part of me that doesn't want to buy into their relationship-- which is not to suggest that Voinov failed to write this plausibly. I think it's just repugnant to me that Nathaniel and Brook's relationship started with such a disparity in power. It wasn't just that the two men moved in different social circles, but one of them is free, and the other is not. While Nathaniel could have taken far more liberties with Brook than he did, the majority of their relationship seems like one manipulation after another-- even if part of that manipulation was Nathaniel's workings behind the scenes to free Brook. Brooklyn has had one person after another let him down, so I don't know how he could ever trust Nathaniel after he discovers Nat's omissions. I would certainly think that being a slave would make him even more mistrusting of Nathaniel. In similar circumstances, I don't know if my relationship would have recovered. And in spite of Brook gaining his freedom, I don't feel that disparity dissipates enough by the end of the novel for the relationship to feel right to me. My $0.02. YMMV.
Ok, this is reading like a freshman English seminar paper, so I should wrap it up. Though I felt like I was being dragged under into Brook's misery at the beginning of the book, I wish it had been longer-- the whole book, not Brook's misery (doh!). I wanted to know more about the Belonging-verse. Where does "belonging" come into all this? Belonging to one's self, belonging to your loved ones? Belonging in a society? Besides literally "belonging," what other kinds of belonging are we talking about here?
I wanted to know more about Brook's marriage and why his wife chose to abandon the marriage (was she cutting her losses, was she under some threat?). I wanted more of some of the secondary characters (Eric and the Cubans, particularly). I wanted to know more about the aims of a penal system that convicts one of its own, and what further political machinations precipitated Brook's conviction.
Oh, before I forget--- I like that the chapters are written in "rounds," in keeping with the boxing theme. The story is action-packed, as is to be expected, and the fighting scenes are descriptive, but also tautly written. And, I loved the website associated with the Belonging-verse-- http://www.belongingverse.com, though it's also kind of creepy! And a LARP!!?! Oh, that's all kinds of wrong, and absolutely brilliant! I will be keeping my eye on further content there. And hey, I'm willing to lend my image to the Rachel and Aleksandr for their conscripts section of the website, since I'm about ready to go that route--still underemployed 11 months after graduation(I probably wouldn't have any takers, though, hehehe).
And lastly, forgive the cheesy metaphor, but Counterpunch was a knockout!
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