LaToya Watkins' searing debut novel, "Perish," begins when a teenage Helen Jean discovers that the dose of turpentine she'd taken to end prior pregnancies resulting from her father raping her wasn't going to work this time. It's 1955 in Jerusalem, Texas, and Helen Jean, who is growing up impoverished and alone since her mother died, has few options but to marry Jessie B., a mysterious bachelor about a decade older than she is who tells her he noticed "you need some protecting."

Jessie B. keeps his promise to treat Wayne, the child Helen Jean has soon after they marry, as his own, but given Wayne's origins, Helen Jean cannot love him and she raises him with chill remove. Wayne in turn becomes a broken, vulnerable target for abuse as incest perpetuates throughout generations of the Turner family.

Watkins elucidates the complex fallout from Wayne's birth by moving back and forth through time and introducing the perspectives of other family members, including two grandchildren, January and Lydia, who are drawn back to Jerusalem to visit elderly Helen Jean on her deathbed.

January is a Bible-focused mother who dreams of attending college and forging a better life, but she's hampered by lack of resources and panicked hypervigilance caused by childhood trauma. Watkins deftly captures the fresh cadence of January's voice, as in this passage that shows the determination with which she faces every task: "I make my bed every morning soon as I get up. Soon as I climb out, I turn around and fix my mess. And I make it perfect, too, like something in a department store that ain't never posed to be slept in."

January's cousin Lydia escaped sexual abuse, but not the sick dynamics of the Turner family. After suffering a few miscarriages, she realizes she doesn't want a child. This puts her marriage on shaky ground, in part because she cannot bear to reveal the dark secrets of her family. She's haunted by the pronouncement of a palm reader she once visited: "The fruit of your womenfolk is tarnished. Nothing gone live outside yours. Nothing ever should."

As Watkins details the violation of the children in this family, shows the reverberating impact these acts have, and makes the reader empathize with each authentic, distinctive character, "Perish" can be a stomach-churning read. It's a raw but necessary book, depicting the consequences of forcing a teenager to give birth to her father's child, a situation current law could now make more prevalent.

Incest in the United States is astonishingly common, with studies estimating that one in four girls and one in six boys will suffer abuse before age 18, with the majority of perpetrators being family members. With "Perish," Watkins has shaken off the shame of the ultimate taboo and brought it to light through the story of the unforgettable women who bear its burden. This novel will serve as a hand extended through the darkness to a great many of its readers.

Jenny Shank's story collection, "Mixed Company," won the Colorado Book Award and the George Garrett Fiction Prize and her novel, "The Ringer," won the High Plains Book Award.

By: LaToya Watkins.
Publisher: Tiny Reparations Books, 336 pages, $27.