Friday, April 07, 2017

Horrible People Week Continues

There was no reason to expect anything from Stephanie Kuehn besides a continuation of the string of unlikable characters.  She writes dark and twisted stories about dark souls in twisted situations, and Delicate Monsters fits squarely in that genre.

I previously read her book Complicit, and she deals with a lot of the same themes here.  She's definitely an author who you can see the issues she keeps coming back to--memory, defining oneself and lying to oneself, and how someone who seems like an objectively bad person can believe he is a good one, or see himself as the hero of his own story.

Delicate Monsters follows three characters--Sadie Su has come back to her hometown of Sonoma, California, after being kicked out of her third boarding school for trying to kill someone. Emerson Tate is not thrilled that she's back; they had been friends for a while before she left, but that was a dark time in Emerson's life, and the person he was around her wasn't someone he wants to think about a lot. And Emerson's brother, Miles, suffers from mysterious illnesses and visions of dark futures.

The book is less about a chain of events than about the unfolding of the past. I consider this to be a risky strategy, because the Thing All The Characters Know But The Reader Doesn't is really hard to pull off.  Either I'm teased with this mysterious knowledge until I'm frustrated, or I don't know it's there and it ends up feeling like a deus ex machina. This book pulled it off, primarily because a) it takes a while for you to figure out that there are gaps in your understanding of events, and b) it's a fairly short book, so the time between recognizing the gaps and realizing the truth is not long.

At 230 pages, with three POV characters, you'd think the book would be too short, but I think it works very well this way.  The point is to see into the experiences of these three characters, and I don't know that spending more time with them would have been easy.

Sadie is basically your textbook sociopath. She has no fear and no inhibition, does what she wants when she wants it, primarily wants her life to be easy but is bored easily and frequently does damage to other people when that happens.  When she comes back to town and sees that Emerson is a basketball star with a budding romance and popular friends, she sees her knowledge of what he used to be like as leverage to make life interesting.

Emerson, on the other hand, is mostly thinking about the beautiful May, and trying very hard not to think about the period he spent with Sadie soon after his father killed himself when Emerson was 10.  That was a very hard time and he's still angry about how a lot of things played out--including his brother's increasing health problems. He knows what Sadie is capable of, and from the time she comes back to town, everything starts to feel precarious and wrong.

Miles, on the other hand, tries to stay as meek and quiet as possible. His life is plagued by problems--bullies at school, constant and unexplained health problems, visions that come over him suddenly.  It's all he can do to get through the day drawing as little attention to himself as possible, and he still winds up in the hospital.

These three stories come together in ways that I definitely wasn't expecting from the beginning, but that unfold naturally and with perfect inevitability.  The things that you forget or filter out of your understanding of yourself, the things you count and don't count when you're adding up your assets and liabilities--this is where the truth lies, and this is how the story unfolds.

It's a grim and dreamy book; I read it in an afternoon and I suspect I'll be thinking about it for a few days.

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