Got a long stretch of quiet time available? This isn't a read-at-the-crowded-airport-layover novel, necessarily, but I found it absolutely arresting over the one-sitting course of a quiet morning. I grabbed this book because this author's debut novel is winner of the 2014 William C. Morris Award, was longlisted for the 2014 CILIP Carnegie Medal and was a finalist for the California Book Award, and I've read three starred reviews already for her second book, which has only been out since June. I thought it was well past time for me to read some Stephanie Kuehn (pronounced "keen").
NB:This is, at its heart, a book about truth and silence. I focus on more of the narrative structure than I do the plot arc, in an attempt to leave the details for readers to discover, but know that this is an engaging, disturbing, challenging read. I can imagine older teens who enjoyed Patrick Ness' THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, A.S. King's EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS, and books of that ilk will find it a worthy challenge.
"The school devours privacy and rumors are like drops of blood in an ocean full of predators."
Summary: Andrew Winston Winters - using probably the best description of a hated boarding school I've read - has been marooned in Vermont; he's been sent away and is marking time after a massive family meltdown. He's waiting -- for something to happen, really. After all that's gone down, there must be something next, some malignancy which will appear from within himself. When a dead "townie" turns up in the woods off-campus, Win's sure that this is it: the "something" has happened - he has become a wolf, and he has killed. His main hope is not to ever hurt anyone else when it the wolf erupts from him -- he's seen people hurt enough. He's hurting enough. He's miserably lonely sometimes... but also terrified. His classmates see him either a snob or a kook, a withdrawn, ultra-brilliant, and ultra-isolated outcast. When a girl who doesn't know his history - and hasn't yet found her feet at his school - latches on to him, he's tempted to make a friend -- but the past is always only moments behind him, and nothing is possible, until that past is brought into focus. With the help of friends he didn't know he has, Win makes sense of incidents in his past, and finds his way to having a future.
...we talked about matter - most notably quarks, those tiniest components of everything. They come in six flavors, you know: up, down, top, bottom, charm, and strange. I'll admit those talks helped me, and when I read about the sea quarks, I understood why. They contain particles of matter and antimatter, and where the two touch exists this constant stream of creation and annihilation.
Peaks: Creation. Annihilation. A constant push-pull. What a perfect description, and one which physics buffs will appreciate. Despite the fact that I found the novel troubling, it was a superb read. With balanced structure and careful revelations, the novel uses woods, wolves, darkness and other images to take the reader into the realm of the unknown. As illumination, in the form of facts, emerge through the voice of a deeply unreliable narrator, the facts morph, like elongated and distorted shadows as created by a flashlight bobbing through deep woods. Consequently, at times the reader feels a little lost, even a little frightened as they're learning the path. Is all that we see all that we should see? Or, is there something else to know...? This lack of clarity mimics the protagonist's journey into the tangled undergrowth of himself, where it is very dark indeed, where sharp-edged branches slice and impale, and there is pain and trauma and danger.
Nine-year-old Drew, plagued with frequent motion-induced vomiting, bouts of rage, and a lot of poor impulse control, shows classic symptoms of a troubled kid. The narrative bounces back and forth between this conflicted Drew and the isolated, sixteen-year-old Win, all that's left of him. The irony of him taking his long name down to a single syllable, "Win" when all that he feels left with is clearly loss gives us another edged insight into the character. Through these deft characterizations comes clear a very disturbed character, as secret-upon-secret is folded up and pushed further and further down, down, down... but, nothing stays pushed down forever. Win feels the past scrabbling up the steep sides of his throat, pushing out hair and claws through his skin. He fears -- and feeds - the wolf to come. He welcomes the change -- and the carnage -- almost as much as he fears it.
But every birth needs a midwife. Though he doesn't choose them, Win finds coaches to help him breathe, and take him to the place where the ugliness and violence is given voice and life -- and is declawed in a way that lets he and the wolf not kill.
Valleys: This is a complex, brilliant book - and to me there are no valleys. Some readers may find the psychological thrillers aspect of the novel and the subject matter disturbing. Not knowing is also challenging to many readers; untangling the cords strangling the voice out of truth is a difficult task. This novel, however, is still worth the work.
I read a library copy. You can find CHARM & STRANGE by Stephanie Kuehn online, or at an independent bookstore near you!