A Review of Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013
by REBECCA, August 14, 2013
I am in love with Charm & Strange, Stephanie Kuehn’s mysterious and slim debut novel that is both strange and charming.
The blurb: 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.
Charm & Strange alternates between the present, when Win is at boarding school, and the past, when he and his brother go stay with their cousins one summer. When the book opens, there has been a mysterious death in the woods surrounding school: a body has been found, attacked by a wild animal. This is the setup for the psychological battle that Win is facing: he is convinced that he is a werewolf who hasn’t yet been able to turn. Maybe. Or has he? Is this a werewolf story, an unreliable narrator, a misconception? All of the above? None of the above? Well, obviously, I’m not telling.
Kuehn (who is working on a doctorate in clinical psychology) masterfully uses this animal attack as a way for Win to discuss his conviction about his feral nature, and it’s all done with such subtle menace that I was sold in the first two pages:
“The headmaster is firm. There’s something out there, he tells us while we’re all crammed shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh in the dark shadows of the school’s creaking chapel. A bear. A cougar. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. No one knows. . . .
The platitudes and clichés spill from his mouth in rapid succession like the lame script of some poorly programmed android. I listen but learn nothing new. I do know the cops are in the woods again this morning. I know because I watched them trudge out there, real early, with their cadaver dogs and everything. But today’s forecast calls for rain, and this will wash away the evidence, I guess. That’s too bad. I’d like the truth to be known as much as the next person.
More, really.” (22-3)
I will say very little about the plot of Charm & Strange because it would be a damn shame to give anything away. Kuehn’s writing is gorgeous and her presentation of Win’s internal landscape heartbreaking. This is a rich, dark book about childhood, about families, about trauma and the ways we deal with them.
The story of the summer Win and his older brother spend with their cousins—the summer that everything changes—is a well-crafted coming of age story shot through with bolts of menace, sowing the seeds of Win’s conviction that he is a werewolf. As the two stories—past and present—play off one another, they build to a climax that might reinvent Win entirely. And though it’s a circumspect story, the stakes have never been higher.
At just over 200 pages, Charm & Strange packs a major punch without ever losing the edge of mystery that makes it recognizable as dealing with memories dredged from childhood and events colored over with the fog of trauma. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
(Also, both the U.S. and the U.K. covers are competing for ultimate gorgeousness!)
Andrew Smith. In case you haven’t, just don’t waste another minute of your life before you go and read every goddamned thing he’s written. Fans of The Marbury Lens in particular will enjoy Charm & Strange. My review is HERE.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Gorgeous, gorgeous prose and an ability to evoke the psychology of his characters that’s at the absolute top of the heap. Fans of Last Night I Sang To the Monster, in particular, will enjoy Charm & Strange. My review is HERE.
procured from: a secret admirer! (thanks, mom!)