The sophomore work by author and trauma survivor JH Morgan is an outstanding, character-led novel that offers an honest and naked portrayal of the aftermath of trauma.
By Timothy Arden
Commenting on the old adage of ‘write what you know’, Pulitzer-Prize nominated author Nathan Englander once made an excellent observation:
“Why do we love those books [we love], why do they change us, why do they touch our hearts, why do they hold so much meaning? Because they are truer than truth; because there is a great knowing within them, and I think what’s behind ‘write what you know’ is emotion.”
When you read a rare novel like The Long Road Home, Englander’s point becomes fully clear. It is nothing less than a masterclass in the sculpting of raw, hard-earned emotional experience into a thoroughly compelling work of fiction.
It is also a book that, while telling a story with imagined characters and situations, is as much an extension of the author as her hands were in the act of typing the manuscript. For, at the age of 14, JH Morgan was the victim of a traumatic, life-changing attack. She has come back from those dark times, and has forged a career for herself as a novelist to note, but at the same time she must live with a new identity imposed upon her—that of a ‘survivor’.
As such, what JH Morgan ‘knows’, and better than most, is the survivor’s mentality and the burden of personal trauma. This novel is, fundamentally, an exploration of those concepts, drawing upon the emotions that only someone who has gone through trauma and emerged the other side can describe and commit to paper.
Thankfully, the author also possesses a formidable literary ability. There is an element of catharsis in what she writes, no doubt, but at all times the novel is, first and foremost, serving the reader, as it should be.
At the heart of the novel is the journey of Emily Winters, a 30-something freelance IT security consultant who, as a teenager, was kidnapped and tortured for several weeks. Equally shocking, the perpetrator was none other than the pastor in her sleepy rural home town, Stan.
Emily has spent more than half her life pretending her past hadn’t affected her. She drinks too much and substitutes one-night stands for any form of meaningful relationship, wary of letting anyone get close.
But while she can escape other people, she cannot run from the mirror, which betrays a patchwork of livid scars running from her neck to her groin—unfading reminders of the brutal, and prolonged, attack she had to endure.
Emily is working on a project in Paris when she receives an unexpected call from Paige McKenzie—the social worker from her childhood and the closest thing that Emily has ever had to a friend. Paige is distraught. Her teenage daughter, Casey, who had been backpacking around Europe, is in a German hospital, having been found in a tunnel. Like Emily, Casey has been the victim of a kidnapping and sexual assault, and Paige turns to her to be with Casey while she and her husband get flights out. Without hesitation, Emily sets off, though only for Paige’s sake. For anyone else, “Anything that made Emily confront her own past was ordinarily off limits”, and would have been “refused without a second thought”.
The experience of seeing Casey, battered and bruised in hospital—powerfully summed up as a “bloody mess in a bed”—hits Emily hard and only aggravates her nightmares about the past. Two months later, however, Paige asks Emily to come back to Hawthorne, the home town she’d do anything to avoid, for Casey’s sake. Though her physical wounds are mending, the teenager’s emotional injuries remain wide open. Paige believes that only someone who has been through the same experiences can possibly reach her, and help Casey heal as a person.
Emily makes the journey, the long road home of the title, with the utmost reluctance. But as her bond deepens with Casey, and she reconnects with old acquaintances including her former boyfriend, now town sheriff, Liam, Emily slowly comes to learn that the only way to effectively deal with the trauma of the past is to stop running and confront it.
To reveal anything more would spoil this beautifully-written and moving work of contemporary women’s fiction. At nearly 500 pages in length it isn’t a fast read, but you are soon swept into the lives of Emily, Casey and supporting characters. As the novel progresses, you come to care for them and, at times, fear for them. JH Morgan is adept at stripping back the mystery surrounding Emily’s own traumatic experience piece by piece, each chapter giving a little more insight into what she had to go through, as well as that of those around her, in addition to painting a chilling portrait of the monster that was her tormentor.
The novel does contain graphic content, but perhaps more unsettling are the blunt truths, voiced by Emily, and which provides an honest and unflinching representation of what being a survivor of trauma really feels like. Take, for instance, this pointed response from Emily to Paige, a woman defined and supported by her unshakeable Christian faith, about her daughter’s mental prognosis: “Whatever comes back from this won’t be the Casey you knew. Survivors aren’t the same as before, there’s no returning from something like this. Survivors aren’t the people that they were before. They are just the people who weren’t allowed to die. There’s a difference.”
Or, for example, there is this simple but so deeply poignant, passage describing Emily’s thoughts upon calling on Casey at home for the first time:
“Emily walked slowly up the dark wood stairs, her heart starting to pound. She ran her fingers up the smooth bannister as she climbed and imagined Casey going up and down these stairs thousands of times before now, toddling up them when she wasn’t supposed to as a small child, running down them on the first day of school, getting ready for prom, descending the stairs slowly in her dress and high heels, a beatific smile on her face as she saw her parents and date waiting at the foot of the stairs for her, pure love and pride in their eyes. Running down the stairs when the mailman arrived, desperate to see if she got into the university of her dreams. So many memories these stairs must hold, Emily thought, looking at the photos that lined the wall on the way up. Casey and her parents and different stages of their lives. Emily wondered how it must have felt to walk up those stairs to her room when Casey came home this last time. If Daniel or Paige had to hold her steady as she climbed them.”
Yet this is not a novel with an ultimately bleak message, and neither should it be taken for a lowly work of misery lit. From the beginning to the end, there is an overarching idea here in pairing Emily and Casey and then comparing their differing approaches to handling the aftermath of trauma. In many respects, Emily is the one who learns the most from this relationship.
I should declare that, being a man, women’s fiction is not usually high up on my list of favourite reads. The Long Road Home, however, is much more than the sum of its parts and gave me both a story that I was more than willing to invest my time in, and a genuine insight into the lives of trauma survivors. For that reason I would recommend it not only to a female audience but to anyone who has, or knows, someone who has been through trauma—as well as with anyone who simply loves books that take you on an emotional journey par excellence.
JH Morgan, a mother-of-three, lives in Swaziland. Her latest novel, The Long Road Home, a work of contemporary women’s fiction, provides an honest and unflinching representation of what being a survivor of trauma really feels like. It draws on her own life experiences, which include a horrific attack when she was just 14. The Long Road Home by JH Morgan is out now on Amazon UK priced £14.16 as a paperback and £4.74 as an eBook. Further information about JH Morgan can be found on her official Facebook page, here.
Meet the Author: JH Morgan
JH Morgan has had to endure terrible ordeals in her life, but has channelled those deeply unpleasant experiences into works of fiction that have both helped her process her trauma and provided support to other victims and survivors around the world.
Since the release of her first novel in 2016, Starting Over, author JH Morgan has been building a loyal fan base of readers from around the world, drawn to her emotionally-driven and deeply insightful contemporary women’s fiction.
Her signature theme is the exploration of personal trauma and its aftermath, which she covers in an honest and unadorned, though none-the-less poignant, fashion, betraying her prior training as a journalist. The issue of trauma is one that the author has, sadly, known only too well during her life. She was just 14 when she suffered a life-changing attack in her native South Africa. Until that point she had been a precocious pupil at school, but she dropped out within a year of the assault and admits that in its wake she turned to excessive partying and other “unhealthy ways to numb the pain”.
She moved with her family to neighbouring Eswatini at the age of 18 in a bid to get away from her past, and to break away from the “wrong crowd” she had found herself mixed up with back in South Africa. Here, she found work as an au pair and quickly struck up a friendship with the mother of the children, who became one of only two people outside her immediate family whom she has trusted enough to confide in. It was while working as an au pair that she first met the man who would later become her husband, and the father of her three children: a son, now aged 10, and two daughters, aged eight and six respectively. More than that, though, JH Morgan describes her husband as her “bedrock” and “emotional support” who has helped her work through issues related to her trauma. Before this, she had tried, like many victims of trauma, to supress these memories as “experiences that never happened”.
At the age of 29 her life came crashing down again when she suffered a sudden heart attack at home. It was her young son who alerted the paramedics and whose quick thinking is to thank for saving his mother’s life. Doctors later discovered that the author had been living with an undiagnosed condition that had led to congenital heart failure. Thankfully, they were able to correct the issue with surgery. While her health recovered, however, the incident led to JH Morgan suffering from long-term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She says that she has been through many “dark times” since, but that it is her children who have “given me a reason to live”. Now aged 34, she has been a stay-at-home mum for the last four years, caring especially for her youngest daughter, who is deaf, and her son, who is a certified genius with an IQ of 162 – a higher score than Albert Einstein, who ‘only’ had an IQ of 160.
JH Morgan’s second, and latest novel, The Long Road Home, has just hit the shelves and once again provides an unerringly honest psychological portrait of trauma victims. One of the central characters, Paige, is, says the author, an amalgamation of the two women in her life she is closest to: her former employer when an au pair, and latterly, the counsellor who has been helping her work through her PTSD. Though she is already working on a third novel, she has no immediate plans to deviate from the theme of personal trauma. In part this is because her writing, as she says, serves as “a form of catharsis” but also because she wants her work to offer support and insight for other victims of trauma, as the dedication at the beginning of her new novel sums up perfectly:
“To the survivors and,To all of those trying to keep their head above water”
Exclusive Q&A with JH Morgan
We speak to Eswatini-based author JH Morgan about her motivations for writing, her adopted country and the trials and tribulations of raising a son who is a certified genius.
Q. Your novels deal with the experience of trauma; something that you have had to go through in your own life. What have you learned about the best way to deal with a personal trauma?
A. Running and hiding, although the more appealing option isn’t actually an option. You can push it down, ignore it, pretend it never happened, but it finds ways to seep through into your life. Whether it’s the way you see your relationships with others, or how you interact with them, it taints every moment of your life until you deal with it. Accepting trauma is one of the most difficult things a person can do. It’s not something anyone wants to go through or accept, because why should we accept something so wrong? Why should we let go of anger? It feels righteous to be angry, to not accept it, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling that way. But the longer you hang on to that, the longer you’re allowing the trauma to have control over your thoughts and feelings.
Q. Your latest novel paints a truthful, sometimes brutally honest, picture of what it is like to be a survivor of trauma. Why did you feel this is important?
A. One of the things I’ve learnt is that I was never alone feeling the way I did. The isolation, the shame, the nightmares…. It’s not weakness. It’s awful, it’s unfair and to be very blunt, it sucks. But it’s the truth. It’s the side of things people don’t want to know about or discuss, but it’s there and the more people that can begin to understand it, the less stigma the survivors have to deal with. It is a brutal account of what it’s like, but surviving is brutal. Every moment you live for a long time after trauma is brutal.
Q. On the same point, do you find representations of trauma survivors in popular media, in general, to be lacking that realism?
A. More and more today, people are standing up and telling their story, but for the most part, I think it’s downplayed greatly. They go through it and then get over it. There’s very few times the media honestly portrays the long and incredibly painful journey to healing. You never get to go back to the person you were before.
Q. One of your children is a certified genius, with an IQ of over 160. What challenges does this present as a parent?
A. Besides the fact that he outsmarts us in every aspect? It’s terrifying. People often assume that because he’s so gifted, his life is going to be amazing. But the truth is, when a child has intelligence like my son has, they tend to overthink everything. My son struggles with anxiety because his mind never shuts down. He is always thinking of the million different ways a single decision could affect him or his family. Intellectually, he struggles to fit in with kids his own age and, emotionally, he struggles with kids older than him. We always have to be conscious of the fact that he’s still a ten-year-old child with a ten-year-old’s emotions, which are often magnified. He’s a wonderful child though, sweet and thoughtful. He worries terribly about people less fortunate than he is and wants to make the world a better place. He’s an amazing big brother whose patience often outstrips our own when it comes to his sisters and he regularly blows our minds when he tells us every scientific detail he’s learnt about a new dinosaur. He reads textbooks and encyclopaedias the way I read fiction novels.
Q. You live in Eswatini, in southern Africa. How would you describe this country to those who have never visited?
A. It’s small. Really small. But it’s beautiful. We have some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever seen. People here joke that we all run on “Swazi time”, in that nothing is hurried. Not the service you receive from government offices or restaurants, but just life. It’s not the type of lifestyle where you need to feel under pressure all the time to be constructive. We have cities and shopping centres; we have a cinema, which doesn’t sound exciting to most, but when it opened a few years ago everyone was ecstatic. It’s peaceful here. We get the best of both worlds, living in Africa, with gorgeous landscapes, but we also have the lifestyle of living in an urban environment. Eswatini is a place everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.
Q. What do you think are the most important ingredients of a good novel?
A. Your characters and what makes them who they are. I think writing what you know is an old saying that has so much truth in it. I’ve learnt that the more of me and the people around me that I put into the people in my books, the more human the characters become.
Q. What do you want readers to gain most from reading your novels?
A. I would like for survivors to know they’re not alone. For their family and friends to understand what it’s like to have the life you had wrenched away from you without warning. If my novels could help just one person, then I’ll know I haven’t wasted my time.
One of my readers told me that the protagonist from my first novel, Starting Over, gave her hope that no matter what you get dealt in life, you can always get back up and begin again. She has continued to correspond with me since 2016 and told me that my character changed the way she looked at life.
Q. Being the parent of three children, it can’t be easy to find time to write. Tell us about your writing routine…
A. I home school my three children because, unfortunately, Eswatini is too small to be able to truly cater to gifted children in school. This has been an incredibly challenging experience for all of us but we have finally found a routine that works. Fortunately for my writing, and very unfortunately for my wrinkles and the bags under my eyes, I am a chronic insomniac. I used to devour books when I couldn’t sleep. After a while, I started writing instead. I still read three or four books a week (I’d probably write a lot faster if I didn’t), but I’ve found a love for writing that often keeps me up later than the insomnia would.
Q. Which authors and novels would you consider as being inspirational for your own writing, and in what ways?
A. It might sounds odd considering the genre I write, but J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series taught me a love for reading that I never would have had otherwise. I started reading the series when I was young and discovered that escaping into the world she had created was far more therapeutic than anything else I was doing. To this day, and much to my husband’s bafflement, I read the Harry Potter series at least once a year. I’ve recently read the first three books to my children and they are absolutely captivated. It’s not just the story that I hid in when I was overwhelmed, it’s the small details that J.K. Rowling added over the series that became so important later in the story. The names of places and people were so well thought out that everything has meaning.
I also love Nora Roberts, and the way she is able to write with such incredible versatility. Tess Gerritsen, Jeffery Deaver, Robin Cook, John Grisham, Jill Mansell, Dean Koontz, and Stephen King: all my favourite writers, one for every mood. They have all inspired me in different ways.
Q. What are your plans as a writer for the future?
A. I have already started planning my next novel. Writing has become such an intrinsic part of who I am that I can’t imagine ever not wanting to put pen to paper.