Kunio is running away from — well, not home, exactly. It hasn’t been home since his grandfather died. His mother never wanted him, and now that Kunio is 18, he can give them both what they want: a life without each other in it. No more abuse, no more enduring nights with his mother drunk and abusive, no more parade of boyfriends, no more yelling, hitting, or hatred. Now, Kunio’s standing in the rain, feeling freer than ever, and hitchhiking his way … away.
When Nathaniel stops to pick him up, it’s like Kunio is meeting a kindred spirit. The two of them have both had lonely, difficult childhoods and both of them ran away to get free. Nathaniel has recently gotten out of a bad relationship and needs to find a roommate to help with the bills, and Kunio needs a place to stay. It’s fate, or maybe random chance, but it’s the best thing that happened to either of them.
However, Theo, Nathaniel’s ex, is still very much in the picture. He constantly calls Nathaniel at all hours, crying and weeping about how ill used he is, how lonely, how everyone hates him. The two knew one another in foster care and, due to a shared past, entered into a relationship almost as soon as they became adults, moving in together as lovers until Theo, along with all of his other toxic behaviors, cheated on Nathaniel, and Nathaniel threw him out. Theo wants back in and keeps threatening to kill himself if Nathaniel won’t talk to him, drop everything to cater to him, and it’s wearing Nathaniel to the bone.
Kunio can’t help but care, deeply, for Nathaniel. He sees shades of his own life in Nathaniel’s tired eyes, drooping shoulders, and the way all the light and life leaves him when Theo is in the room. All he can do is be there for Nathaniel; all he can do is be a good friend and hope Nathaniel will, somehow, find the courage to let himself let Theo go for good.
First, some content warnings for references to past child abuse, self-harm, suicide attempt, emotional abuse by an ex who keeps threatening suicide, mentions of underage drinking, toxic relationship, C-PTSD, flashbacks, anxiety attacks, parental alienation, and mental sectioning.
Kunio has gone through a great deal of abuse in his life; his mother resented him, perhaps even hated him. While Kunio had his grandfather for the first eight years of his life, after his death, Kunio was back with his mother who was abusive and overusing drugs, sex, and alcohol. In an effort to appease his mother, who pointed out his eyes as something she most hated, Kunio attempted to gouge his own eye out and is now blind in one eye, wearing an eye patch. Kunio was often locked in a closet, beaten, and when he was older, thrown out of the house in the middle of the night so a friend or boyfriend could stay over. It wasn’t until he was 18 that Kunio felt free enough to run away and now, even with the support of a friend group, he suffers from flashbacks and periods of rumination and dissociation. This, along with feeling that he doesn’t deserve happiness, has left him a struggling. When Kunio has a breakdown in a club and admits to needing help, he is given a therapist who diagnoses him with C-PTSD.
Theo, the toxic ex, is a child whose mother chose to stay with her abusive, meth-dealing and using husband rather than to keep her child. Pushed off into a variety of foster homes, Theo has abandonment issues, along with other problems, and found both a purpose and a victim in Nathaniel. Theo was able to control Nathaniel, to dump his emotional problems on him, pressure him into sex, and even when he cheated on him, Theo still managed to keep Nathaniel in his life with threats of suicide. He’s jealous, selfish, and just as hurt in his own way as Kunio. He is also both desperate enough and hurt enough that, when push comes to shove, he might well do himself harm because it’s the only way he knows to control Nathaniel.
Nathaniel grew up in the foster system, always welcome to stay as a foster child, but never seen as worthy of being brought into a family. During a depressive period, he attempted suicide, and it’s Theo who found him, called the ambulance, and visited him while he was in the hospital, something he has held over Nathaniel’s head ever since. Nathaniel likes being wanted, being needed, being able to help. When Kuniko is making dinner, Nathaniel is anxious when he wasn’t told so he wasn’t able to help out, and is only moderately relieved at being able to do the dishes, after. Nathaniel doesn’t want to be alone, but he seems to need the constant validation of having someone around him who can take the limelight away from him. He wants love and support, but having so much of his life been witness to and partnered in unhealthy relationships, he falls back on old habits of giving and giving, uncomfortable when he feels unequal — or that he is being given more than he gives.
And then there’s Kunio’s mother, Nozomi. She got herself pregnant at 16, trying to hold onto her boyfriend, but he declined, leaving her with a child she didn’t want. Nozomi was uninterested in being a mother, preferring to party and drink, leaving Kunio in her father’s care until he died. The book correctly makes no effort to excuse Nozomi’s inexcusable actions, her abuse to her child, or her neglect and cruelty. The book does have a confrontation between Kunio and his mother near the end of the story where he tries to gain closure, and then follows his story as he does what he needs to do for his own mental and physical safety, with the support of his friends.
This book has several things to recommend it, particularly to a younger audience. Normalizing therapy, and showing that characters can endure a great deal of pain and still manage to find love and the path to healing with help and support is an excellent message and one I wholeheartedly support. And if that were the only part of the book I was reviewing, this would have easily been a four star read. However, I’m also judging the book as a story, and that’s where it didn’t entirely work for me.
This book is very character driven. It’s a look at Kunio’s life, while he struggles to move past the harm his mother did him. He sees how other people treat and talk about Theo — who also has severe emotional issues stemming from abuse — and he tries to hide and mask his feelings. He doesn’t want to be a burden, doesn’t want his struggles to bring the group down, so he lies about what he needs, which forces his friends to have to guess at how best to help him. It’s a slow burn of falling in love with a friend, all while being afraid he isn’t good enough because of the abuse, because Nathaniel is getting out of a relationship with someone who constantly dumped his shit in Nathaniel’s lap because he didn’t want to carry it anymore.
The story feels rather one note. The characters feel real and flawed, but the constant self-deprecation and internalized shame was somewhat exhausting to read, especially when combined with the — well, let’s call it world building. Kunio works with clay, and there are several lengthy and detailed moments where he talks about clay, working clay, buying clay, drying clay, and selling his clay figures. Nathaniel sews, so there are lengthy and detailed sections where he’s talking about fabric, orders, shipping, gloves, designing, and planning. There’s a D&D game in the book, and there are lengthy descriptions of characters playing, rolling their die, tallying up hit points. While it does make the world feel fleshed out and developed, I found myself at times putting the story aside out of boredom. The talk about baking, descriptions of people buying key chains, and a list of foods with peaches in them was just too much. Personally, the book felt somewhat bloated in parts because during those moments — save some moments during the D&D games — it wasn’t about the characters, it was just listing of facts.
This is, I believe, a debut book, and it feels like it. The idea is a strong one, and it feels like there’s a lot of love in how the characters are written, but the writing is stiff and the constant fact-dumps slowed everything down. I’ll be curious to see more from this author. And while I don’t mind this book, I can’t say that I entirely had fun reading it. However, if you’re into character-driven books and appreciate a strong message of love, compassion, and found family dynamics, you’ll probably enjoy this story. That said, there are heavier moments with Kunio’s flashbacks and Theo’s constant threats of suicide that may be difficult for some people.