"The sea was my biggest treasure, a jewel as huge as I could imagine the earth to be, " says the introspective and thoughtful twelve-year-old Ares, who lives as a "solitary family of three" with
his free-spirited mother, Laurel, and his severely autistic younger brother, Malcolm, in the ramshackle town of Bombay Beach situated on the edge of the Salton Sea.
Located in the southeastern corner of California, this vast body of water is actually a lake, the largest in
the state and a huge magnet for birds and other wildlife. But the very things that make this lake so unique are placing the Sea’s existence at risk. Also at risk is young Ares, who seems content to maintain an enchanted life in this rundown desert outpost under the watchful spell of
a mother who conjures a life for them out of nothing.
Although he grew up with great physical freedom and a mother who obviously loves him, Ares has few friends. Laurel
is mostly content to eschew the few rules that may conflict with their privacy and is of the conviction that, over the years, society has had little to offer them. A determined woman who can't bear to be hemmed in by other people, Laurel manages as best she can, working as a therapeutic masseuse while Ares shoulders the lion's share of Malcolm's care, looking out for him at school and deflecting the cruelties of
his brother's classmates.
Ares nevertheless blames himself for a terrible accident involving Malcolm, the memory always coming alive to him just as
if it were five years earlier, when his brother suddenly fell from his arms. The accident leaves Malcolm a damaged boy, unable to speak, forever trapped in his own little world, his head facing toward the sky and wishing he could be like the birds that fly across the desert toward the water, "their pale wings reflected the sun like sails on a boat."
Over time, the disbelief, fear, and at first a nearly imperceptible seed of guilt
take root inside of Ares. Hoping to somehow escape the misery of his culpability and the minefield of imagined recriminations, he forms a friendship with the kindly librarian Mrs. Poole, partly because he's angry at his mother for her fierce but sometimes neglectful love and for not doing enough for Malcolm, and also angry at his brother
- just for once, he would like his brother to look at him like he really knows who he
When Mrs. Poole offers to work with Malcolm on his speech, Ares takes the opportunity to spend some time at her house. Almost at once, the boy is spellbound by the way her home speaks so simply of a life different from the one that he knows.
His time with Mrs. Poole seems to release him from the life of the careful boy shadowed by an "old and mongrel guilt." Only now, perhaps, can Ares be a boy who can invent himself as someone who can finally do things right.
Like a dream or a heroic fantasy, Ares feels trapped between a life he once enjoyed and one that now feels miserable, lonely and bitter. When Mrs. Poole's self-obsessed and incurious adopted son, Kevin, returns to the fold, events take a turn for the unexpected. Ares underestimates the persuasive power of Kevin's rebelliousness and finds himself totally mesmerized by the power of the older boy's apathy.
It is with Kevin - and later an incident with Laurel's part-time lover Richard beneath the shadows of the Chocolate Mountains - that Ares eventually realizes that he can no longer be so self-effacing and remorseful toward Malcolm.
Despite the obvious obstacles, it is eventually the bond of brotherhood between the boys that gives this novel so much of its heart, Malcolm's disability telling us much about how far as a society we have come in the way we view and treat autism.
At its heart a novel about what it means to be family, God of War is also about innocence and guilt, about our grievous mistakes and their consequences, and about the punishing ramifications of willful ignorance.
The constant listless movement of the Salton Sea and its surrounds make up an integral part of this story, and the steady descriptions of the bird life surrounding the sea provide an allegorical reflection of Malcolm's need to belong and to make peace with himself.
As Ares gravitates between crazed and calm, truly believing that he caused Malcolm's injures, it is eventually an act of self-effacing love involving a violent gun accident that perfectly cements their relationship and finally tests Ares mettle as a loyal brother and devoted son.