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Growing Children

by Salustiano Berrios

Rating: *****

When Jim Simple’s wife, Diane, dies in a freak accident, she leaves him behind with their young autistic son, Robin, and the plan of having three further children together shattered.

Struggling and refusing to engage with Robin, Jim descends into a twilight world of alcoholism in which his only motivation is to father three healthy children, preferably with his deceased wife. Enter an illicit, underground scientist named “Passenger” who promises to bring Jim’s triple dream fully to life…

Set in Houston, Texas in the mid-21st century, Growing Children is a dark, intense, and powerful novel that, at first glance impresses as a dystopian science-fiction horror, but which operates on several deeper genre levels and sub-texts.

Aside from the end, the narrative voice of Growing Children is Jim’s furtive recording of events from a motel bathroom in Mexico, and what a wonderfully authentic authorial voice it is. Immediate, driving, and emotive, Jim is instantly compelling and a fascinating study in contrasts.

He can be unflinchingly harsh and shockingly irreverent but also pathetically lost and vulnerable. This gives the notion that Growing Children is unfeasibly grim; it is in parts, but Simple’s voice lightly crackles with whip-smart comic energy and raw honesty that makes him sympathetic to the reader and normalizes the desperate depravity of his actions.

As aforementioned, the story is set some three decades hence and this adds enough futuristic belief to the plot and a dismal oppression to surroundings. Nonetheless, there is also a twisted noirish vibe to the narrative that reminded me strongly of a 1950s construct adding another surreal layer to an already nightmarish premise.

Once Jim takes the reader deep into the black heart of the process that he sets in motion, it is hellishly gruesome. However, it never veers into gratuity as there is a nastily uncomfortable degree of possibility in what Passenger does to conceive these three children, rendering the horror all the more terrifying.

Not only does Growing Children provide an appallingly timely commentary on the contemporary rise and advancement of artificial intelligence and technology, but it also explores the multitudinous difficulties, many suppressed, of raising a severely disabled child.

Robin is pitifully depicted from Jim’s perspective, which ensures the reader views him with compassion. It could also be leveled that Growing Children can be viewed as a cautionary moral tale, there is certainly a whiff of allegory to the conclusion.

Passenger, the scientist, and Driver, his second-in-command, have the ability to repress nastiness while keeping it visible. Both do not appear entirely human, especially Driver, and Passenger’s subtle but short, staccato phrasing with unusual sentence breaks add to the disquiet.

Their ghoulish subterranean dwelling, “The Palace” is a Hieronymus Bosch painting in literary form. It’s horrid. Berrios brings it, and the seething mass of strung-out, dead-eyed occupants to life with skin-crawling realism.

Among the ghastly, grasping individuals furthering Jim in his halcyon ideal of fatherhood, Berrios drops Moza, a relatively well-adjusted young prostitute who helps Jim with Robin and the three newborns. She’s an anchor of vague normalcy for Jim and balances the story as it rapidly descends into a living hell.

Throughout the novel, there is a measure of foreshadowing and this increases with creeping unease as the reader is hurtled toward the grisly conclusion. Notwithstanding, there are a number of ways this story could end, so reader curiosity is constantly piqued and consequently, the pages keep turning.

There are a couple of loose narrative connections and, occasionally the unbroken narrative structure makes the reading experience a touch breathless. Nevertheless, this does complement the overwhelming nature of the story and the fact it is unfolded through a recording.

Growing Children is a brilliantly chilling novel by a horribly exciting writer. Highly recommended.

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