The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
The Wrath and the Dawn is the beginning of a trilogy retelling the story of Shahrzade. The language is good for a YA novel, if a bit breathless, with many paragraph breaks and emphatic sentence fragments. Shahrzade’s storytelling is less of a focus than romance and court intrigue. In this version of the story, the king who kills his wives is (spoiler alert!) compelled to do so by a curse, which does most of the work of turning him from a serial killer into a Byronic hero. However, in this novel, on his first night with Shahrzade, the king, Khalid, has very “perfunctory” sex with her. She submits, seething with hate. She notes that on the second night, she is getting good at dissociating during these encounters. They don’t have sex again until after they fall in love. But that is what I don’t get. How can she fall in love with a man who raped her?
On the other hand, maybe I’m just being prudish. Maybe it would be almost silly or unrealistic if they didn’t have sex. It makes sense that sex and marriages would work this way in this very patriarchal society, with sex a given. But there’s no way for this kind of sex to be anything but coerced at best, and coerced sex is rape. Khalid never apologizes to Shahrzade for it, although he does decide not to do it again until she consents fully. A question that’s left unanswered is whether or not Khalid slept with every one of the other murdered wives, and whether they consented. Were their final hours spent being violated? The book seems to lead me to answer, probably. Although it also seems possible that he simply stays away from the women, since he is so bad at emotional intimacy and didn’t seem to enjoy the impersonal sex he has with Shahrzade their first night anyway. Shahrzades’ honest gaze at their wedding ceremony is what intrigues him enough to visit her, but rather than asking her questions to begin with, he jumps right into bed, because he can and because he doesn’t have the skills or the guts to talk to her. He seems to begin their conversation with sex, because he doesn’t know what else to say–she says he seems to derive no real pleasure from it. His cowardice leads to her violation. And the narrative does not address this issue at all.
While the story does a great job of describing the couple’s physical attraction, it doesn’t sufficiently explain how Shahrzade deals with these rapes or makes sense of them in the context of their growing relationship. How does her attraction overcome her resentment? When they do finally make love, how do their previous coercive encounters color the act? Does Shahrzade continue to dissociate, even though she no longer needs to escape? Is Khalid still emotionally distant and perfunctory, because that is how he is used to behaving in bed, even though he is trying to express real love?
Ahdieh gives us no answers, but I guess these are my questions: In fiction, is rape a crime that puts a character beyond redemption? Or is there such a place as beyond redemption? What is necessary for that redemption? Can that redemption happen in the same relationship as the rape? Even if a rapist gets redeemed, can he ever deserve a true “happy ending”? Is it exploitative for an author to use this rape–>redemption narrative as a form of character development for a male character? Is it ok for a narrative to gloss over rape and its effects? In stories set in the past and in patriarchal societies, is it realistic to expect that characters act as we 21st century readers would wish them to, with regards to sex and consent? Or is setting irrelevant since all of this is imaginary anyway? I’m not sure what the answers are, and maybe that hesitation is a sign of some thinking I need to do on my own, but I suppose the fact that I felt uncomfortable and unsatisfied around this issue shows that The Wrath and the Dawn didn’t answer these questions sufficiently or convincingly.