Book Review: Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

Andrew Winston Winters has a monster inside him.  A wolf.  He’s convinced of it, and the full moon is approaching.  Torn between the teen boy he is on the outside–a loner at his Vermont boarding school, shrouded by the ghosts of his terrible past–and the monster he knows he holds on the inside, Win works hard to deal with his demons.  Over the course of one night at a party in the woods, Andrew deals with the painful memories of his past as well as the pain he inflicts on himself now in isolation.

It’s interesting to read Kuehn’s debut shortly after reading her excellent, chilling Complicit.  While both definitely explore some of the same themes, Charm & Strange is more of an experiment in exploring the psychology of someone completely, irrevocably damaged by their past than Kuehn’s sophomore effort.  It’s also a bit more uneven than her follow up, but her strong writing and excellent ability to build tension helps to distract from that.

Told in alternating chapters that tell the story of Andrew’s past with his family in Virginia (anti-matter) and the present at his boarding school (matter), the book pulls no punches when it comes to presenting Andrew as a teen who is dark, haunted, and maybe quite violent.  It’s clear to readers that he has a host of problems and could be diagnosed with a myriad of things, but Kuehn is smart and never labels Andrew’s issues.  The novel is about Andrew’s coming to terms with his past and present.  It’s not about a clinical diagnosis for him.

Kuehn is great at teasing her readers with details about what has happened to Andrew without ever really giving away the details.  This helps build suspense, but it also raises a great deal of questions for readers.  What happened to Andrew’s siblings?  Why is he so damaged?  Is he really a wolf?  Kuehn’s controlled prose makes all of this work much better than it would have in a lesser writer’s hands.

Because the novel flips back and forth in time, there is a little stalling with regards to the plot.  The novel is definitely a slow burn, and that is going to put some readers off of it.  But for those who love a dark contemporary–and make no mistake, this is not a paranormal story in the least–and don’t mind a slow burn of a novel, this is a must-read.

Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn. St. Martin’s Griffin: 2013. Library copy.

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