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A young adult novel that presents brother-sister incest in a positive light is a surprise. More surprising is how well Suzuma's novel has been received by readers. This is a book that argues strongly that love between two people can't be wrong, and that the problems in such relationships are caused by the intolerance of society. At the same time, because of the extreme social stigma that goes with incest, Suzuma makes a case that no good can come of the forbidden relationship.
It is London, now. Lochan is 17, Maya is 16, and they are effectively parents to their three younger siblings. The brother and sister are thrown together because their father left years ago to make a new life, and their mother is an alcoholic who is almost never home because she wants to be with her boyfriend. Both these teenagers are very attractive, but they have no time for normal teaching life and dating because they are full time students and caregivers. Lochan is very talented, but he is also profoundly shy, and he cannot bring himself to speak a sentence in the classroom. Maya is less eccentric, but she does not really want a boyfriend, because she has a crush on her own brother.
Early on in this novel, the strength of the writing is in its descriptions of the terrible strain the children are under because of their mother's irresponsibility. The chapters alternate between the brother and sister as narrator, and readers are quickly drawn into their worlds. The writing is strong and their voices are convincing even if it is implausible that such a relationship could really exist. As their relationship progresses, the book becomes less believable. But it remains an interesting story throughout. It seems unlikely to cause any young people to actually try incest, so it is more a thought experiment. Although there are many pages, they go quickly.
To say that the book is shocking is obvious: it is very hard to read the descriptions of the sexual interactions between Lochan and Maya without simultaneously squirming and being struck by their passion. Looking at author Tabitha Suzuma's list of previous novels, it is clear that she focuses on hot-button issues, and she has outdone herself here. One might worry that this is a sensationalist work that is needlessly sensual, and certainly does not address a pressing social issue, since there is no movement calling for the destigmatization of sibling incest. Some parents and teachers may well find the book inappropriate for young readers, although there is no more sexual content here than one finds in many young adult novels. Forbidden is written to provoke, and it may lead people to ask questions and go beyond standard responses such as "that's just unnatural." It is good at portraying the psychological desperation that could lead two young people to even contemplate the thought of incest. If there is a serious worry about the responsibility of Suzuma in writing this work, it is in that she largely ignores the facts of real incest, which involve coercion and exploitation.
Nevertheless, the questions Suzuma raises are perfectly good ones. If you eliminate the possibility of pregnancy and genetic defects, then what is wrong with incest between consenting adults? Can young people at the age of 16 and 17 (over the UK age of consent) really be competent to make decisions about sex? Are serious criminal penalties for non-coercive incest appropriate or excessive? And more generally, should we ever judge or criminalize sexual behavior between consenting competent people that does not hurt anyone else?
© 2012 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York
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