If You Lived Here, You’d Be in Hell by Now

DEAR MISS METROPOLITAN
By Carolyn Ferrell

Drawn from Ariel Castro’s horrific kidnappings of three women in Cleveland, “Dear Miss Metropolitan,” Carolyn Ferrell’s stunning and innovative debut novel, tells a story so grim, it’s best to summarize plainly. Three teenage girls are abducted, then held captive for 10 years in Queens. Locked in the basement of an unassuming house, Gwin, Fern and Jesenia are subjected to repeated rape and torture at the hands of their captor, referred to only as Boss Man. Fern and Gwin eventually escape, as does the infant child of Boss Man and Jesenia. The fate of the infant’s mother remains a mystery, an open wound.

This is a heavy story, difficult to encapsulate without misrepresenting its content and aim. The ripped-from-the-headlines premise might seem sensational, but “Dear Miss Metropolitan” is not horror or thriller, but a literary novel, experimental in style, that asks readers to immerse themselves in the psyches of the deeply traumatized. This is an artful text: an intricate mosaic of shifting viewpoints, black-and-white photographs and fragmented, unreliable narration. The novel is not easy, but how could it be?

Humming with specificity, “Dear Miss Metropolitan” rejects easy caricatures of suffering. From the girls’ perspectives, Boss Man’s house is murky and fantastical. The mice talk, brown water leaking from the pipes is really coffee, lasagna can be made from raisins and Steak-umms. The girls feast on paper food, pages torn from a cookbook.

Ferrell resists clichés, allowing the girls’ inner lives to diverge as Fern and Gwin despise Boss Man but Jesenia responds to his sadism with desperate denial. “He’s not such a bad guy if you get to know him,” she says. “Know him like I do.” To treat these girls’ experiences as interchangeable would be a betrayal. Fern pleads with the reader to take her seriously. “I’m unique,” she insists. “I’m special. Always have been.”

The premise of “Dear Miss Metropolitan” is reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s “Room,” though Ferrell’s novel feels more expansive in scope and richer in its exploration of trauma. Ferrell writes with no illusions that this kind of violence can be contained; neither causation nor blame is neatly assigned. The girls’ back stories feature predatory men and radical religion, and pages of the novel read like missing persons fliers in which the girls are called “thankless,” “lazy” and “pretty-nuff” by hurting mothers who assume their daughters ran away. Meanwhile, Boss Man, if he is to be believed, was abused by his mother and shares painful memories while the girls are restrained and forced to listen, a gyre of violence that spirals on.

Shifting points of view reach through time, beyond the cramped core of the story to characters marked by pain. Fern’s younger brother experiences homelessness as he navigates adolescence as a gay Black boy, suffering without his sister’s support. In the years following the girls’ 2007 escape, residents of Amity Lane grapple with guilt and blame as public curiosity alters the street where, for a decade, neighbors lived oblivious to the violence happening under their noses. In 2039, Katanya, the daughter of Jesenia and Boss Man, is haunted by her inaccessible, unspeakable origins. “Why do you have to have a history?” her grandmother asks. It hurts too much to keep looking back, hurts too much not to.

Through all this darkness, Ferrell writes with a steady, empathetic hand. She leaves space for tenderness: Fern’s memories of dancing to “Soul Train” with her brother, Gwin’s adoration of Prince. In their post-captive lives, Gwin and Fern remain firmly together, bound by trauma and love, while advocated for by a caseworker they call Ms. Refuge, whose devotion weaves a sturdy thread of good through the narrative.

Yes, “Dear Miss Metropolitan” is devastating, but it shouldn’t be summed up as such. This is a blistering contribution to the cohort of contemporary literature focused on sexual violence. It is a novel that reads like a labyrinth, as complex as the trauma it depicts.

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