By Jon Pineda
Milkweed Editions, 2013, 197 pages

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In its most potent forms, guilt can have a lasting and powerful hold on us, sometimes altering the course of our lives. Apology, Jon Pineda’s début novel, offers a heartfelt study of these effects, and of what is gained and lost when painful truths are kept secret.

At the beginning of the novel, nine-year-old Teagan Serafino suffers a brain injury when her brother’s friend Mario Guzman dares her to jump over a pit at a construction site. As Teagan makes the jump, Mario throws a football at her, causing her to fall into the pit. Mario runs from the scene of the accident, leaving his Uncle Exequiel, nicknamed Shoe, to discover Teagan when he shows up for work at the site. When Shoe finds the football, labeled with Mario’s name, by Teagan, he removes it and makes an anonymous call about the incident to the construction company.

Later, a police investigation implicates Shoe in the accident, and he says nothing about Mario’s involvement, wanting to protect him and allow him to go on with his life. As a result, Shoe is imprisoned for years.

Guilt is the price that Mario pays for his own silence, and he retreats from playing with his friends, focusing instead on his studies. Pineda writes: “Whenever he thought he wanted to be part of [his friends’] games, he would think instead of what was expected of him. The quiet books in his room, the endless words that waited to live inside his head. That was the pact he had made with the sky and the empty streets of his childhood. Each night, the conversation of his adult self whispering to him, telling him that it was all going to be okay, that he was going to make it right, he only had to do something extraordinary, and for the rest of his life.”

The extraordinary thing Mario does is become a pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon at a children’s hospital. Yet this achievement can’t bring him peace of mind; he remains haunted by guilt over Teagan’s brain injury, by Shoe’s jail’s sentence, and by his failure to tell authorities the truth about his uncle. Near the end of the novel, Mario seems to be given a chance to redeem himself, and it is up to us, the readers, to decide whether he actually does—and to consider the very limits of redemption.

Teagan’s brother, Tom, experiences guilt of a different sort. For years, he remembers the last thing he said to her before her accident: “Get out of my life!” Though shouted in typical sibling annoyance, the words take on deeper significance for Tom in the wake of what happens to his sister. Pineda conveys this lasting sense of remorse with a moving authenticity informed by personal experience.

As Pineda wrote in his 2012 memoir, Sleep in Me, his older sister was severely injured in a car accident when she was sixteen years old, and was never able to talk or walk again. She died five years later.

In a recent interview about Apology on WTVR in Virginia, Pineda said, “I could understand the guilt that [Tom] feels. … I think the survivor’s guilt that I’ve had with my sister’s passing and being able to write books knowing that [in] her last five years of her life she wasn’t able to really communicate in the way that she would have wanted to, it’s something that will stay with me.”

Even Shoe has feelings of guilt—for being a burden on Mario’s family, withwhom he lives until the time of his imprisonment, and for ending a relationship with a woman whose son had come to see him as a surrogate father.

The stories of Mario, Shoe, and Tom are told through a series of brief scenes. Though these are interconnected, each has its own spark and life. In some cases, readers are left to fill in details or to draw their own conclusions about why certain characters make the choices they do. But, in general, Pineda strikes the right balance between shedding light on key characters and events and letting the darkness speak for itself.

Also, Pineda, an accomplished poet, knows how to bring telling details to life. Just one example is this observation he makes of Teagan after her injury: “Everything she knew became ashes in her mouth. For the rest of her life she would be able to taste the hint of this day but its memory would have long vanished like a failed fuse.”

Would My Pick be Your Pick?

If you're interested in ________, the answer may be "Yes":
• Stories about secrets and the guilt that can be associated with them
• Stories told authentically from children’s points of view
• Stories of redemption
• Insights about how individuals and families cope with trauma
• Tales about drifters or quests