Small Damages, a book review

by Beth Kephart
published in 2012
a sweeping 5/5 stars
Goodreads Kephart’s Website

“You aren’t happy,” Estela says.
“I can’t be happy,” I say.
“Look at me, Kenzie.”
“I’m looking at you, Estela.”
“Do you know your own heart?”
“I don’t know anything.”
“Go,” she says, “and think. And don’t come back until you know.

 

Books are worth nothing without a reader. But, that doesn’t mean a book should feel obligated to give away its whole essence as soon as the reader has turned to the first page. A true book invites the reader to discover its potential and its nuances, while maintaining the enigma and allurement of its conception. And one of the books that does just that, without a doubt, is Small Damages.

Kenzie is spending the summer after her senior year in Spain, bringing with her a growing belly and an undetermined future. Her mom has sent her to avoid dealing with the public embarrassment that will come with her pregnancy, and Kenzie’s boyfriend, Kevin, is failing to understand her choice and has his eyes set more on Yale than her chocking situation. Kenzie spends her days in an old cortijo, surrounded by an eclectic array of personalities spanning from the boisterous cook, Estela, the free-spirited gypsies, and the reticent young man who spends most of his time with animals, Esteban. Here, Kenzie finds herself thinking, and observing, and discovering the parts of herself she didn’t even know existed, and the parts of her herself that are becoming to be.

Small Damages has a lusciously intimate quality to it. Kephart’s prose is divine: the words never speak too little or too much. The sentences never meet an edge; they are continuously weaving itself into the next, creating delicate cycles of imagery and rhythm. The prose speaks for Kenzie with honesty and heart, free from any misguided ambiguity that sometimes leaves the reader to dig for more information that doesn’t exist.

“She’s [Estela] changed into a dull gray dress. Her fair falls loose down her back. The skin of her arm doesn’t fall from its bone. She is compact. She is complex. She is strong enough to save me.” (Pg. 257)

The prose also contains an unparalleled texture created by subtle themes that speak to Spain and to Kenzie. Scenes of Estela cooking are laced with descriptions brimming with vibrant colours and exotic smells. Kenzie’s insight in videography offers us glimpses in her life that otherwise would have gone undetected if she only noticed what passed before her eyes. In her words, “Sometimes, with a camcorder, you record motion. Sometimes you try to stop it. Slow it down, find the shadows, know what lies between.” (Pg. 15) Finally, Kenzie’s strong attachment to her late father and her best friend Ellie reflects her ultimate yearnings. She yearns for her father’s unconditional affection, as all she now knows is the purposeful barrier that distances her and her mom. She yearns for Ellie’s carefree, bubbly, shining personality because her untimely fate has stifled all of her dreams and desires. And so, themes in “Small Damages” are not meant to be understood with a sweeping glance of the page; they are meant to be explored and rendered into the conscious reality.

Kenzie develops incredible relationships with many characters in Small Damages, and although some only span a total of a dozen pages, they leave a compelling mark to the story. With Estela, Kenzie blooms as a cook, as a woman, and as a human being. Estela is demanding and seemingly unnerving but in reality, her big heart and humanity help Kenzie understand and notice the unbiased small stories that lay the foundation of a person’s character. With Esteban, Kenzie finds a sincere connection and a welcoming voice. They have one of the rawest relationships I have ever had the luck to encounter in a fictitious book. When they are together, they exude such a forbidden naivety that is almost too pure for love.

“Are you okay? Esteban asks me.
Not really.
But you will be.
That’s what everyone says, Esteban, but how do you know? How can you know? Nothing’s okay, and it can’t be.
Because I’ve been watching you, he says. He steps toward me and touches my lips. Come back later, he says. If you want.” (Pg. 215)

Small Damages is a coming-of-age story of the most riveting and quiet of proportions. But it is also an old love story from ravaged times, a boy’s quiet grieving and woodland dreams, a mother’s attempt to sterilize the past. It is Spain at its brightest and its darkest. It is the story of human resiliency and tenderness. And so, dive into Small Damages with an open heart. And if you choose to bare your soul to it, it shall bare its soul to you back.

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6 thoughts on “Small Damages, a book review

  1. Grace, your writing has developed so much! This is such a thorough and eloquent review, weaving together a plot summary with your own personal reactions. You include specific details about the book – its intimacy, its prose, its many side characters that leave a mark – and how they flowed together to influence your personal reaction. Both you and another book blogger I really respect have praised this one, so I will need to check it out soon. Hope you are doing well.

    1. Hi Thomas, thank you very much for your kind comment! I haven’t written serious book reviews in a while now, and though I don’t think I’ll be too consistent with them anytime soon, they really do help develop one’s writing! Small Damages is a one-of-a-kind book, and I do agree that you need to consider it soon ;)
      Grace :)

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