Thursday, 5 July 2018

Mental Illness in YA Month Review: The Wicker King by K. Ancrum

The Wicker King by K. AncrumThe Wicker King by K. Ancrum (Bought) - When August learns that his best friend, Jack, shows signs of degenerative hallucinatory disorder, he is determined to help Jack cope. Jack’s vivid and long-term visions take the form of an elaborate fantasy world layered over our own—a world ruled by the Wicker King. As Jack leads them on a quest to fulfill a dark prophecy in this alternate world, even August begins to question what is real or not.

August and Jack struggle to keep afloat as they teeter between fantasy and their own emotions. In the end, each must choose his own truth.
From Goodreads.

I was really surprised by The Wicker King by K. Ancrum, as it wasn't the story I expected. With the way the book is described,  I thought it was going to be a contemporary novel mixed with a high fantasy story. But it's not; it's completely contemporary, with August going along with what Jack's seeing because he thinks that will help. Despite the surprise that The Wicker King wasn't what I expected, it was bloody brilliant.

However, despite being brilliant, it's not a book I enjoyed. The Wicker King is intense. A game Jack and August used to play as a child has become much more to Jack now; he's seeing the world of the Wicker King over the real world. As his hallucinations get progressively worse, he can barely see our world at all. In his world, he is the Wicker King, and there's a prophecy written on the walls. The powerful stone has gone missing, and without it, the world is growing weaker and darker, and if the stone isn't put back by his champion, August, the Cloven King, a dark and evil king, will attack and take over. To Jack, this is completely, completely real, in the sense that he can see it all; he knows he shouldn't be seeing it, but because he is, he can't help but be affected by what he sees - and it scared him; not so much that he's seeing it all, but what he sees. As the world grows weaker, the things he sees get scarier, and the more he starts losing control. He ends up barely holding on by a thread. And he thinks, maybe, if he and August find the stone and put it where it needs to be, maybe the hallucinations will stop. And August goes along with it, because he doesn't know how else to stop it. He's worried if he tells adults and those in authority, Jack will get locked up, and August can't have that, because he needs him.

It's really interesting how The Wicker King is told. Even though it's not in verse, it reminded me very much of a verse novel; the chapters are very short, most around a page or less, and it's less a narrative that flows from one chapter to the next, and more looking at snapshots of moments in their lives as Jack gets progressively worse. Throughout the book, there are photos, notes, a map, police reports, mix tapes and CDs, detention slips, and so forth, all that look so real, like photographs of each of these things. And they don't just give an interesting element to the story, but give the story more credibility, that Jack and August are real people, and all these things are the evidence of their lives. The formatting of the story was incredible, to; the pages offer a visual representation of Jack's decline - the worse he gets, the more the pages change from normal, to slightly smudgy around the edges, to darker smudges that spread over the pages, until eventually the pages are completely black with white text. So even before you read the chapters that are coming up, you anticipate Jack getting worse, because you can see it coming.

Because there are so many extra elements added to the book - the photos, the notes, etc - The Wicker King is a very quick read, and I found, with the narrative as it is, just short, snapshot chapters, I didn't get to become emotionally attached to August and Jack like I would have liked. I cared, but it was at a distance. Even so, this story was so intense - it was overwhelming. Putting aside August's hallucinations for a moment, their relationship is just so unhealthy. Thankfully, Ancrum wrote an author's note that helped me understand their relationship better, but I spent the book thinking these two should absolutely not be friends. Jack has his moments where he turns really nasty, and is actually quite violent to August. He thinks of August as his; there's a moment when they're kids and August almost drowns in a river. Jack saves him, but he's angry that August nearly died, telling him he's not allowed to go, because August is Jack's - he belongs to him. Yet in his most vulnerable moments, he clings to August like a child to their mother. And August looks after Jack, and takes care of him, like a parent would. But at the same time, he needs Jack to tell him what to do. Jack makes demands, and August does what he's told. Even if, once Jack's hallucinations become much worse, Jack demands he does more and more dangerous things - things that could end his life. They desperately need and crave each other, because their parents aren't around; Jack's parents are always away on business trips, they are never home, and August's mum has agoraphobia, and will not leave her basement. Not only will she not leave her basement, but she also seems to have checked out emotionally; when August tries to talk to her, she cannot tear her eyes away from the TV, and it's like she's barely listening to him. Neither Jack nor August have their parents, so they try to get what they need from each other. Their co-dependent in a big way, and it's massively unhealthy. I can't even begin to describe the need they have for each other. The thought of being apart from each other doesn't bear thinking about. And it's because of this that August tries to help Jack, though does so in completely the wrong way; instead of getting him help, he goes along with Jack in trying to fulfil the prophecy.

It's probably no surprise that, as the story goes on, their relationship evolves, even if August is oblivious to it. It's quite clear that Jack is in love with August. And to the reader, it's also obvious that August is in love with him, too, but he doesn't realise itecause their relationship is so screwed up, and because he doesn't have many examples of love in his life. Everyone around him can see it accept him; people talk to him about it, without actually saying "you're in love with/attracted to Jack!", but because they don't come right out and say it, he has literally no clue what they are talking about, and they're very strange conversations for him.

Trying to help Jack affects August's own mental health. By the end of the story, he has anxiety, and this part of the story was done so well. His worry for Jack, watching him deteriorate even more with each passing day, and the dangerous things they keep doing, take their toll, and he starts having panic attacks, and they were just so well written. I could really see myself in August in those moments. August also stops eating, and develops stress fuelled anorexia, as Ancrum confirms in this interview. He becomes too stressed to eat, though Jack seems to think he's forgetting to eat. He loses quite a lot of weight very quickly, and people are  beginning to notice and comment on it. Jack starts to worry about him, and at one point will only talk to August about something if August eats the apple Jack gives him. He also becomes a pyromaniac. I found this really interesting, because I didn't realise pyromania was a mental illness. I just thought a pyromaniac was someone who liked fire and burning things, but pyromania is actually an impulse control disorder. For August, he needs fire. With everything that's going on, he gets more and more overwhelmed, and it keeps building up and up and up, and he's left with this uncontrollable desire to light a fire, and once he's lit a fire and watches it, there's this sense of relief and release, and he's able to let go, temporarily, of everything that has built up. It's almost as if he doesn't light a fire, he will explode. And for the most part, he's not actually endangering anyone; it starts off small, without him even realising, with cigarettes. Then it moves on to setting fire to books, to then gathering wood in a clearing in the forest, and starting a bonfire, that he will stay and lie next to all night, watching until the last embers burn down. It was fascinating to read, but also heartbreaking. All his mental illnesses develop because he has no-one to turn to, really. He would normally turn to Jack, but it's Jack with the problem, so he's dealing with this all on his own. It's probably also important to state that co-dependency is also a mental illness, so there's a lot that both Jack and August are dealing with - though, what Jack is dealing with, what he's seeing, isn't actually related to a mental illness, we discover, there's something else going on, which is why he knows he shouldn't see what he's seeing.

There was one moment that really illustrated to me what Jack is dealing with. As I said, he knows he shouldn't see what he's seeing, but he does, and it's taking over what's real. For example, when they visit Rina, a woman they befriend over the course of the story, instead of seeing her house, he sees a hill, and when they're in the house, they're on top of the hill lying on the grass. He doesn't see the house at all. The only thing that really anchors Jack is August. He sees real people, but they get confused with his hallucinations, so he's not sure if they're real or not, but August is always August - even if he is wearing a mask sometimes, or a strange uniform. August is the one thing he can count on to be true. Then, once, when they're in the woods, Jack becomes terrified and orders August to run. He's pulling them along, and they're running as fast as they can as if they're being chased - because as far as Jack is concerned, they are. He is absolutely petrified. Once they're "safe", August wonders what would have happened if he hadn't run.
'August looked thoughtful. "I wonder what would have happened if I'd just let it get me," he mused, rubbing his chin.
"We're not figuring that out."
"Why?" August insisted.
"Because we're just
not, you insufferable asshole."
"I mean, technically, I can't touch anything in your world. Chances are, it wouldn't be able to touch me either."
"What if? I just had to watch you get violently eaten? Then I completely lost the ability to see you? What about that?" Jack spat angrily.
August went silent.'
(p213-214)
For me, this clearly illustrated to me that he doesn't believe that what he's seeing is real, but he can't help reacting to what he is seeing. He knows it's not real, but that doesn't mean that his hallucinations won't have a profound affect. He knows that August won't be hurt by his hallucinations, but what if the narrative of his hallucinations wipes August out of existence? It doesn't really matter that he would know August is actually safe when he's staring down at his bloody, torn apart body, if it meant for him, August was gone. What if it would really mean Jack wouldn't be able to see August any more? Who would he have then?

I implore you to read the interviews with Ancrum on With Love for Books and The Royal Polar Bear Reads, which go into more depth about the mental illnesses August has, Jack's condition, and the nature of their relationship.

The Wicker King is a pretty diverse novel. Jack has the condition that's leading him to see hallucinations, both Jack and August have mental illnesses (Jack's being the co-dependency), both are bisexual, and August is biracial - though we only know this because on a police report for August, under race it says "mixed", but it's not mentioned otherwise. And for bisexuality and anxiety, The Wicker King is an #OwnVoices novel.

The Wicker King is an incredible novel, but it's a hard read. What Jack and August experience is so intense and overwhelming, and it's so heartbreaking knowing they don't really have anyone else to turn to. Watching them trying to figure things out for themselves when everything is spiralling out of control, making bad choice after bad choice, and putting themselves in dangerous situations, my heart couldn't help but go out for them. Despite the distance I felt, it was impossible not to care about them, and worry about them. The Wicker King is a book you won't be able to put down, and I can't recommend it enough.

Mental Illness in YA Month

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Published: 31st October 2017
Publisher: Imprint
K. Ancrum's Website

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