Rocks in the Belly is a dark and unsettling debut from Jon Bauer.
A story of grief, jealousy and redemption, the story is narrated by the same character at two different ages: eight and 28. We never learn his name, but as an adult he goes by Michael, the name of a younger brother who died only a day old. The narrator is the only surviving biological child of a couple who fostered a long line of boys whom he greatly resents, although none as much as Robert who arrives when the narrator is eight.
Robert quickly becomes close to his foster mother who, in turn, seems to her young son to value her new foster child far more than him. Robert is a little older and this age difference means he gets privileges that add to the feelings of disparity and injustice that build within the boy, until they come to a climax one sunny afternoon…
Twenty years later the boy returns home a man, to take care of his mother who is suffering from a brain tumour. He struggles with both guilt and frustration as he attempts to communicate with the woman who he feels failed him as a child, but whose love he always craved. She is locked in her mind apart from rare moments of lucidity. One of these comes when her son admits something that she had always suspected, and in that small moment, there is a feeling of redemption for the tortured soul of the small boy who is still trapped within the grown man.
Bauer writes fluently and the novel is compelling despite its bleakness. The portions narrated by the young boy are mostly convincing, but the book is not an easy read. There are moments of animal cruelty and some passages with the man and his ill mother are particularly difficult to get through. However, it is a well-told tale of a family who never understood each other until it was too late.