A review of Rachel’s Blue by Zakes Mda

Title: Rachel’s Blue
Author: Zakes Mda
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: NB publishers Limited
Pages: 287
Year: 2013

“She wonders why this became her story and not Jason’s, why it was the victim’s story and not hers.”

Rachel’s Blue is a story that explores what happens when a rapist seeks custody over a child conceived through rape.

It opens with Jason, walking through a hippie town-square where he ends up spotting Rachel, a former classmate and love-interest.

It is set in a small town. This as you well know means, that word travels around fast. But more than that, the people face problems, that are more often than not, a consequence of the government’s ignorance and greed. This means that the people have to fight for themselves through small activist groups. In Appalachia, the people worry about fracking. It is during one of this meetings that Rachel runs into Skye, a renowned anti-fracking activist.

Rachel and Skye’s relationships buds into a quick romance which is a thorn on Jason’s side who believes he has fallen madly in love with Rachel upon reconnecting with her. For a while Jason can do nothing about his feelings but things escalate when Rachel ends up having sex and Jason who has been waiting for Rachel to finally confess his feelings, witnesses the whole thing.

From then on, he is obsessed with Rachel and after getting drunk at a party and sharing a ride with Rachel, he rapes her. Rachel conceives and is in denial for a while but after getting professional help, he decides to keep the baby. She gives birth to a boy named Blue, that she adores.

Even though Rachel pressed rape charges against Jason, he is only convicted of assault and serves a few months in jail. Jason gets saved and now claiming that he is a changed man, files a custody claim. What ensues is a court battle that Rachel is poised to lose due to her sexual history and mental illness.

In the end, Rachel has to flee to a state that guarantees protection of rape victims and denies rapists parental rights.

This story explores a lot of themes. Most prominently is society’s view of rape. Most people still do not understand rape as a simple lack of consent. Rachel isn’t believed when she says Jason raped her because she was sexually active before then. Even Jason doesn’t believe that he raped Rachel because he believed he loved her and Rachel had somehow led her on by being his friend. Never mind that he battered her on top of the rape. People, including Rachel’s grandmother, also struggle to perceive Jason as a rapist because he is a good guy who regularly helped the elderly in the community.

For me, it was an elaborate portrayal of the “good guys-get friend zoned” argument: the idea that men should only tolerate platonic relationships with women if it is a backdoor to sex, otherwise the woman will only end up using him. Jason feels entitled to Rachel’s body simply because he thinks he has been good to Rachel. He feels betrayed when Rachel dates Skye that he doesn’t speak to her for weeks preceding the rape.

I like that the author was more accurate in portraying rape cases. He doesn’t go with Skye, the rough, coal-miner that society would have us believe is rapist-material. He goes with Jason, the gentle, caring good guy. Because yes, more often than not, women are raped by people they know. People that claim to care about them. Also, Jason’s lawyer and society at large discredits Rachel’s story because she was sexually active. Even her decision to keep the baby is scrutinized because, why would she keep the baby if he was a product of rape?

Another strong point is how Zakes Mda doesn’t romanticize obsessive behavior. For weeks before Jason raped Rachel, he took to scrubbing the spot that he Rachel and Skye had sex on. The author uses this as the revealing moment: when you can tell that Jason is the rapist. Before this, you can’t tell if it is Jason or Skye that will turn out to be so reprehensible. Also, after the rape, Rachel decides that she is in no space to date anyone. Skye responds to this by camping outside Rachel’s door for days, declaring his love for her and begging her to take him back. I like that Rachel isn’t flattered or taken by this. She stands her ground and even calls the cops on him when he refuses to leave. Women are conditioned to romanticize this kind of behaviour: to think of men being possessive, clingy and invasively stubborn as a show of affection.

Perhaps my favourite thing about the book is the unconventional portrayal of strength. The author shows that sometimes running is powerful. When it dawns on Rachel that the legal system is her state will favour Jason and give him custody, she chooses flee to a state that will give her a fighting chance, a state that “protects it’s own children by denying rapists any parenting rights.” Women have been taught to endure: to stay in bad marriages so as not to embarrass the family or for the sake of the children. Walking away isn’t always cowardice.

The author fails however in dealing with trauma. He uses it merely as a symptom, to explain away Rachel’s shortcomings but doesn’t explore mental illnesses as a valid disease that affects a lot of people who need treatment and support.

Also, the story feels rushed. The story is told in continuous prose and I felt like the interpersonal relationships and history of the characters would have been better illustrated trough dialogue and maybe even flashback.

All in all, Rachel’s Blue is a beautiful, profound story told simply. I’m sure it resonates with a lot of audiences. In the end it is very clear that we write our own stories, that our histories don’t define us.

It does however raise the complex question, should rapists get custody of children sired through rape? I don’t think it should be an option because they should get life imprisonment. And I only think that because there is a rule against castrating people and letting them bleed out.

What do you think?

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