Carmel Scicluna; Ossessjoni. Merlin Publishers, 2013. 160 pp.

Tackling a subject like paedophilia through fiction takes guts. Tackling it from the angle that Carmel Scicluna has opted for, not only giving the reader the culprit’s point of view, but also including a subplot that deals with an al-Qaeda assassination attempt... well, then you really need to keep your wits about you not to allow your story to descend into chaos.

In fact, Scicluna seems to have no problem keeping his wits about him. Ossessjoni won the Konkors Letterarju Kunsill Nazzjonali tal-Ktieb/Aġenzija Żgħażagħ, and even before I finished the second chapter I could see why.

The story revolves around a man who calls himself Uncle Charlie, a 40-something-year-old who has a sexual fixation on Amira. The only problem is that Amira is a 10-year-old. She is wiser to the ways of the world and possesses more sexual nous than is usually expected from children her age.

And this is the crux of the matter. Is Uncle Charlie the monster? Is Amira just an innocent child? Or are there more than 50 shades of grey (if you’ll pardon the pun) in between?

This is a disturbing tale. You read and re-read the words; you alternate between feeling disgust for Uncle Charlie and grudging pity.

Because yes, Uncle Charlie is depicted as a piteous figure, a man who can’t help himself. As the relationship between him and Amira grows more complex, with the balance of power continuously shifting towards the little girl, the reader sees that Uncle Charlie’s sexual urge controls his every waking moment. In short, this is a very sick man.

I have to confess that up to this stage, I was still in two minds about Scicluna’s narrative. Did it manage to hook me? Undoubtedly. Did I like the conflicts it was creating in my mind?

I was not that sure. I’m usually very happy in my unequi­vocal belief that sympathy is wasted on paedophiles and pederasts.

This is particularly so in the wake of the ridiculous attempts by paedophiles to claim the same rights as homosexuals – for all the world, as if the two are even remotely in the same ballpark. I wasn’t sure that I was comfortable having my beliefs rocked.

Kudos to Scicluna for pulling off the double whammy of giving the reader both a compelling storyline and a deep analysis of one of the darkest desires that are usually taboo

Still, being perfectly aware that the true hallmark of a great writer is his/her ability to rock said status quo, I continued reading. After all, the biggest masterpieces created are those that disturb and that deliver that touch of unpredictability that makes you question your values/beliefs/priorites – as long as this is done with purpose, and not just for the sake of it.

Happily, Scicluna definitely belongs to the former camp. The more the story progressed, the more evident his prowess in subtle storytelling, with the reader’s sense of contempt, of revulsion towards Uncle Charlie deepening with each page.

Scicluna manages to create two opposing emotions – getting the reader to acknowledge paedophilia as a sickness, while at the same time condemning the actions of the protagonist – with seemingly no effort. He achieves this without taking on the role of preacher. He doesn’t even actively tell us that what is happening is wrong.

However, every twist and turn in the narrative implies just this. He paints a picture of a childhood that, while maybe not innocent, has certainly been further deflowered by the actions of a selfish, weak-willed individual. The fact that Amira comes from a background of turmoil and physical abuse only serves to make this abrupt ending of her childhood even more poignant.

The book starts off by posing a question: if a child isn’t so innocent, can corruption be really said to have taken place? Scicluna’s story proves that the answer is not only a resounding yes, but that if anything, the perpatrator’s guilt is doublefold.

In the same way that two wrongs do not make a right, Ossessjoni shows us Amira’s precocious­ness simply makes Uncle Charlie’s guilt stronger. The message is loud and clear: there is never a justifi­cation for child abuse.

Ossessjoni is disturbing to read. It upsets the status quo on a subject most people are scared to even think about, let alone dissect. But it does so cleverly, with intent – and while weaving a very good story to boot.

The ending escalates rather abruptly, with the language suddenly becoming more forceful and innuendos becoming certaini­ties. If I have one criticism to make, it is that the transition does not happen gradually – yet again, may­be it is precisely this abruptness that really pushes the seriousness of the situation – the fragility of Amira’s mental state and the damage and pain Uncle Charlie is inflicting on her – home so forcefully. The sudden turn in events proves that at the end of the day, no matter how sexually aware or manipulative Amira might be, she remains a child.

Although the main topic is paedophilia, the issues of domestic child abuse, racism, terrorism (Amira’s father is a mover in a locally based al-Qaeda cell, and there’s an assassination subplot) and a very poor education system are also addressed.

Put like that, it may sound like an overkill of unrelated topics. In reality, it is not. All the different issues come together very naturally as part of the main narrative, and at no point is there a question of anything feeling forced. This is no mean feat to achieve when writing.

Kudos to Scicluna for pulling off the double whammy of giving the reader both a compelling storyline and a deep analysis of one of the darkest desires that are usually taboo.