Book Review: Something I Am Not by Cher Gatto

A father who never loved him … A woman who stole his worth … And a brother he couldn’t protect.

Where does someone run in the face of his deepest shame?

Billy McQueen works hard to keep his life together … and concealed. At seventeen, he dreams of an escape from the barroom, his father’s manipulation, and the advances of his father’s girlfriend. However, on his eighteenth birthday, Billy is introduced to a younger brother he never knew he had. An eight-year-old who is barely capable of navigating the corrupt world of his father’s boxing club.

In order to secure his own freedom, Billy must fight for it. But to save his little brother who is next in line for the slave trade … he must die for it.

I didn’t devour this book, this book devoured me. I started reading on my way to bed, and next thing I knew I was trapped inside the story like Jonah inside the belly of the fish. (Thankfully it wasn’t three days and three nights before I returned to dry land, only 24 hours.)

I read the first half until after midnight, then sat and cried for the emotions that, like Jonah’s fish in the water, loomed larger and larger in the story before finally breaking the surface between fiction and reality. That’s enough for one night, I told myself as I crawled back into bed. But the light didn’t go off until 2:00, after I skimmed the entire second half of the book. I finished really reading the next day.

I applaud the author for boldly writing a beautiful, gripping work of Christian fiction that

  • doesn’t have a Christian main character or a clear conversion scene
  • carries Christian themes loud and clear but never in-your-face or preachy
  • shows Christian characters facing struggles just like non-Christian characters
  • doesn’t shy away from the dark side of humanity (i.e., reality)
  • balances dark and gritty topics and themes with hope, light, and redemption
  • handles difficult and suggestive content with discretion and tact.

The author calls Something I Am Not a YA book with adult themes, and I agree. The story revolves around human trafficking and includes both physical and sexual abuse. Any sexual content, however, is often left unsaid. By allowing the reader to infer rather than sit through scenes of graphic detail, the author not only keeps the book appropriate for the YA audience but also demonstrates masterful understanding of the technique “less is more”–which, in my opinion, only heightens the impact of this kind of story. I understood fully what was going on, without too much guidance from the narrative, and I never thought anything I shouldn’t think or came away with feelings I shouldn’t have.

If you want to talk feelings, though, be prepared for the full gamut: I’m certain I experienced every shade of shock, repulsion, grief, anger, relief, hope, excitement, and satisfaction between the covers of this book. What broke my heart in the middle—and left me in tears that night—was knowing the scenes and emotions I was reading are real in so many lives. Take note: this is not a read for the emotionally fainthearted. (It is so worth it though!)

Besides the emotions, it was so easy to get lost in this story. The setting—all the settings—seemed tangibly real, from Max’s packed bar and Billy’s tranquil river to Adelia’s grand yacht and Dan’s refurnished church building. The author employs plenty of great sensory details that bring every place and experience to life in remarkably vivid ways. Everywhere the story took me, I felt like I was 100% there.

And the characters. The author gives just enough little details of appearance, habit, personality, or backstory to make each character stand out—both in the story and in the imagination—as a fully 3D person. I could SEE not just who they were on the surface but who they were inside, at the core of their humanity: why they are who they are, what they felt, what made them feel that way, etc. I don’t think I’ve read another book that allows so many emotional connections to so many characters. Everyone in the cast felt like they just stepped out of real life into the pages of the book.  

Sometimes the writing seemed a little stiff. Obviously Billy is not Percy Jackson–and neither is the writing style–but a few times I thought the words could have been smaller, the imagery simpler, and the flow smoother for the first-person narrative of a teenage boy. Since the story takes place in past tense, however, and Billy himself is a deep character, I didn’t question the mature voice and overall enjoyed the descriptive, thoughtful writing.

I only struggled—my first read-through—to make sense of a few chapters near the end when new people, places, and revelations came together in unexpected ways. The author doesn’t spell everything out, so readers will have to take the extra step put some pieces together. (In my opinion, that’s part of the fun of reading.)

The ending itself came out of nowhere like a left hook. (Never in a million years did I see it coming.) At first I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not, but as the last warps of the story straightened out, I decided I liked the pattern after all. It’s beautiful in the human realm, and when you bring in the potential spiritual allegory mentioned in the author’s note, it becomes that much more powerful.

Billy’s story isn’t always easy to swallow, but it’s deep and it’s powerful and it’s authentic, and not just because it represents so many true stories (not all of which have the same ending, unfortunately). It asks the question “What do you do with your brokenness” and shows answers from not just the abused teenager but also the grieving pastor, the hurt pastor’s wife, the retired boxing star, the rejected beauty. We all are broken, we just handle that brokenness in different ways—and when we choose to trust God, we let Him do the miraculous healing work only He can accomplish.

I’m excited to share Something I Am Not by Cher Gatto as one of the most emotionally gripping books I’ve ever read. Because of the adult-themed content and its centrality to the story, I wouldn’t recommend this book to young readers or readers trying to avoid triggers. But I still highly recommend it in general. We need to read these stories, need to be aware of what goes on, need to be challenged by the spiritual truths and lessons woven into Billy’s journey.

Read this book. It will change you.

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