When a novel takes you to the darker places of the world it is important that the reader can trust the author. Epiphany Jones takes us to perhaps the darkest places of them all and it is a great testimony to both the skill and the emotional intelligence of Michael Grothaus that he is able to do this in a way that honours the victims and educates the reader whilst delivering a great story. Somehow he approaches his subject with exactly the right tone so that you can be confronted by it but also cope with it within a disturbing but also deeply moving narrative.
Sex trafficking is a very real problem in our world but it is a difficult subject to read about. According to Stop the Traffik 1.2 million children are trafficked each year and human trafficking (of which sex trafficking is the largest contributor) is the second largest source of illegal income worldwide, exceeded only by drugs.
Epiphany Jones is a deeply damaged person who has suffered greatly over a sustained period at the hands of brutally evil men. Grothaus does not shy away from that reality, he does not try to dress up the horrors that are happening to make the reader’s journey more comfortable, nor does he allow his protagonist a superhuman ability to overcome that damage. Instead he shows us the abuse that she has suffered and the damage that it has created and lets us absorb and consider it.
Before Epiphany storms into his life with all of the chaos and destruction of a tornado, we meet Jerry Dresden. He’s a screwed up guy and not everyone is going to immediately warm to him with his psychotic hallucinations and his porn addiction, but stick with him, he’s worth it. The novel opens with the line “Tonight I’m having sex with Audrey Hepburn.” and on first reading that may offend, shock or simply humour you, but by the end it will have swollen with an emotional power that should probably haunt you.
Jerry is accused of stealing a famous Van Gogh from the museum he works at and killing a colleague in the process. The evidence looks convincing and he is forced underground where alongside his figments (hallucinations who have become both friends and tormentors) he becomes trapped in a relationship with a woman on a mission that the voices in her head tell her is from God. As Jerry narrates his story we see Epiphany Jones through his eyes and like him we sway between sympathy and judgment the more we learn about them both.
They set out to confront their pasts and to find a surprising shared hope for the future on a trail that uncovers the full cycle of the trafficking system. Those out purely for personal profit, those tied into an abusive system they support and cannot escape, those whose entire lives have been forged in the fires of other people’s depravity and those at the end of the line who create the whole sickening industry
This is not by any means an easy read but it is a powerful and affecting one. Grothaus acknowledges that you cannot just flick a switch and wash away the effects of sustained abuse and we have to deal with that as a society that tends to deify celebrity and wealth but struggles to meet victims in the reality of their situations. He will get inside you and mess with your comfortable preconceptions and as a journalist who spent years investigating sex trafficking in Hollywood he is well qualified to do so. It is an emotionally difficult experience but journeys of discovery are never easy and this is one that collectively we will surely benefit from taking.