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4 1/2 stars -- creepy AND substantive
on 14 November 2014
4 1/2 stars -- This is a haunting and disturbingly open-ended book. It's about two boys (young men, by the time the story ends) who go through similar traumatic experiences at the age of eight and whose responses to the trauma are strikingly different. Whether both of the responses amount to kinds of denial the reader will come to his or her own conclusions about. Suffice it to say here that between the traumatic events and the final two chapters the boys (who come from different small towns in Kansas) remain unknown to one another, and that they come together is owed to the persistence of one of the boys, Brian Lackey, to find out about some missing hours in his life and their relation to his ideas about space aliens and UFO's. The other boy, Neil McCormick, has no gaps in his memory, but he has embarked on a way of life the relation of which to the traumatic event he is too young to understand. By the end of the book, after considerable additional difficulties, the two young men have got together and acknowledged the trauma -- but the novel refuses to let us sentimentally believe that the truth has set them free. The ending isn't tied up with a bow and delivered to us.
Heim's narrative choice in this novel is to have everything told through the perspective of young people -- the boys themselves, immature and uncomprehending, and some of their friends and family (immature and ignorant of what happened). It's almost an alternation of the two boys' points of view in snapshots of time over a ten year period. There are large gaps, especially between the ages of 12 and 18. It's a risky decision, because these are unreliable narrators who are being as honest as they can be -- given their ages and circumstances -- so Heim asks quite a lot of his readers. The boys' degrees of introspection are different -- their individual characterizations are well achieved -- and, of course, in the nature of the case, introspection is hampered by ignorance and a lack of conceptual clarity that is understandable. Under it all, is the question of where the selves of these boys are. Has something been taken away from them? What is the psychological way forward when they come to see their situations more clearly? Are they more likely to end up as "cases" than as grown-ups (whatever these are)?
The space alien element of the novel is quite brilliantly deployed, I think -- for it too, finally, rests on questions of what the human meaning of events is. It is also through this element that we meet the book's weirdest character, Avalyn Friesen who has been kidnapped by aliens herself and who sees hereself therefore as a source of both information and encouragement for Brian. She'll creep you out at times . . . . I recommend this one.