His first fifteen years with an unstable and mercurial mother have scarred Matt – he knows he can’t really trust anyone. Not his absent nurse father, who knew what was going on but turned a blind eye; not his aunt, who lived a floor below them and pretended not to hear; not the authorities. It wasn’t until Matt brought Murdoch McIlvane into their lives that things began getting better, and for a while there they got worse, first.
Afraid that Nikki will come back one day, and aware that Emmy isn’t old enough to remember the unsafe days, Matt writes a letter to his younger sister, to make sure she knows to be wary. Forced to maturity early, Matt’s first memory is keeping one-year-old Callie quiet during one of Nikki’s rages, to keep her safe. When Emmy came along, the siblings shared responsibility for keeping her safe, too. He tells her about the day he and Callie first saw Murdoch and sensed salvation, describes the first time Nikki threatened him with a butcher knife when he was tiny, and reminds her of the way their mother’s charm can snap into insanity. Most of all, he reinforces that she needs to be afraid – Nikki owned Emmy and one day, Matt knows, she’ll come back for her.
This powerful first-person narrative captures the all-pervasive fear of growing up in an unpredictable and unsafe home, and the airless desperation of having nowhere to turn, knowing all the while that things are only going to get worse.
The reader knows from the outset that the ending is happy, or at least happy enough, but Werlin does a magnificent job of maintaining a clear sense of threat and suspense throughout the novel despite this. Matt is drawn with clarity and compassion, and the novel is wholly his, but all the other characters are equally well conveyed. The plot, which could have easily become overblown or melodramatic, maintains a chilling reality that conveys how child abuse need not entail rape, starvation or grievous bodily harm to be devastating and significant. The Rules of Survival is very readable is style but the content is profound and the voice stays long after the novel is complete. Not for younger readers, this strong and important book is recommended reading for older teens and above. – Alex