In Stephanie Kuehn's brilliant debut Charm & Strange, Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself.
He's part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost.
He's part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable.
Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present.
Before the sun rises, he'll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths-that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying. From Goodreads.
Trigger Warning: This book features child sexual abuse, violence, and suicide.
What to say about Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn, other than that it's awesome? There's so much about this book that I can't really talk about, because of spoilers, so this review is going to be a difficult one.
The story is told in alternating chapters. Back when Andrew Winston Winters was 10, known as Drew, and told mostly during the Summer when visiting his grandparents and cousins with his older brother, and in the present, where he's 16 and known as Win, told mostly over one night at a party while at his boarding school. Drew was a fantastic tennis player, Win does cross-country running. Drew had a violent streak, Win thinks he's a werewolf, and has problems connecting to people. Drew has an older brother, Keith, and a younger sister, Siobhan, Win doesn't have any siblings.
And it's really difficult to talk about what led to these differences between Drew and Win. This book is dark and disturbing, and so very, very upsetting. As you're reading, it's quite clear than Win is an unreliable narrator, and is definitely has a mental health issue. We find out later he has post traumatic sress disorder (PTSD), that is linked to whatever happened to lead to his brother and sister's deaths.
Win is angry, so angry, and yet he's also disconnected. Disconnected from himself, and from other people. It's almost like he's having a little problem with his empathy; he knows he should feel bad when someone is hurting, but he doesn't. He knows he should comfort this person, but he chooses not to. He knows he should feel bad for the not so great things he does to people, but he doesn't. It's not like he doesn't understand why he should, it's just that he doesn't. And it's not like he's callous and enjoys other people's pain - he doesn't. He just doesn't really feel anything. To me, it seemed like there was this wall that was blocking him from feeling what he knows he should be feeling. He also doesn't want to form relationships with anyone. He's not interested in having friends or a girlfriend. He doesn't want to get close to people. With his anger, he seems so tough and strong, but there's a vulnerability underneath it all; he doesn't want to get close to people, because he doesn't want to get hurt.
He is absolutely convinced that he is a werewolf. The term "werewolf" is never mentioned, but he knows his family all turned into wolves at the full moon. But he hasn't yet, and he doesn't understand why. He thought perhaps it was linked to puberty, but he's well past puberty, and he still hasn't changed. That's why he's out on the night of the party. It's a full moon, and he's trying to change. He thinks it's dangerous for him to be anywhere near the party, but for some reason he can't explain to himself, when new girl and loner, Jordan, wants to go to the party in the woods, he leads her, and ends up staying. But he knows it's a bad idea. Someone was killed in the last full moon, and no-one has yet been able to explain why. Could he have changed and killed a man? And just completely forgotten?
This is not a paranormal novel. Win is not a werewolf. This is clear to us readers from the beginning. And not just us, but his former roommate, Lex. Lex is the one person who Win has told about him being a wolf, but shortly before telling him, Win betrayed Lex. So Lex has been pretty anti-Win for quite a number of months now, but at the party he sees what is really going on with Win, why he's out, and his attitude towards him changes. Lex isn't the smartest, he's not even necessarily the nicest, but he knows Win needs help.
And all the while, we have the story of Drew. Drew, whose father want him to be the absolute best at tennis. Drew, whose grandmother treats him horribly because of how he fractured his tennis opponent's skull with his racket when he lost to him. Drew, who used to get on well with his older brother Keith, but who is now not being very nice, and has a overly fond relationship with one of their cousins. Drew, whose cousins tease him, and tell him things that aren't true. Drew who experiences, is involved in, and witnesses a number of things no child should ever have to.
The actual discussion of mental illness doesn't come until the end of the book. He has PTSD. And the being a werewolf was the way his mind tried to make sense of something awful, as he explains to Jordan.
'"My doctor says that sometimes when things happen to kids, like really little kids and really terrible things, they don't know how to make sense of it all. So they come up with ways of understanding the world that don't look like how other people think the world works. Almost like a new language."I'd also say Win is perhaps not far off having an eating disorder. Sport is important to him, but not in the sense of it's his passion, but in that it's something he has to be good at. He was brilliant at tennis, and now he's brilliant at cross country. So he is good at cross country, but he has to make sure he is good at it. So he calorie counts and eats very little, dangerously small amounts. Because if he eats too much, he may end up being crap at cross country, and he can't be. It's almost an obsession, the way he thinks about food and how he controls what he puts in his body. But the way he thinks about food is also kind of... incidental to everything else. I know that sounds bad; an eating disorder is a big deal. But the focus is more on his past, and his certainty that he's a wolf. With his possible eating disorder, it's almost like, if you blink you'll miss it.
"A private language," she says.
"He calls it a system of meaning," I explain.
"You're saying something bad happened to you when you were a little kid?"
"I'm saying that my system of meaning about life, about death, everything, is sort of messed up. But . . ."
"But it doesn't mean I'm dangerous. That's what I've learned. That's what's helped me."' (p210)
Charm & Strange is a beautifully told, completely captivating, but unbelievably dark and disturbing story. It's not a happy read, it's a really upsetting and heartbreaking read, in so many ways, but it's such an incredible story, and an important one, I think. It's one I kind of want to read over, knowing what I know. I want to hug the little boy Drew so tight, and I want to hold teenager Win's hand and help him through. This book is just fantastic, and if you can, I implore you to read it.
Published: 10th June 2014
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Stephanie Kuehn's Website
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