John Darnielle Scribe Published 28th October 2014 Thank you to the publisher for providing this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not alter my review in any way. Thank you to Macmillan Audio for providing the audio clip at the bottom of this review.
scroll down for audiobook extract from ‘wolf of white van’
Wow. This book has just – surprised me. I just – wow. I’ve been reading so many good books and giving out such favourable reviews lately you guys are going to think I’m getting soft. But this one, it is really good.
It is also very different. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, instead it was something much better, something intriguing, suspenseful and unlike anything else I have ever read. And it just left me wondering, trying to turn over such an unfathomable thing in my mind.
At the age of seventeen, Sean suffers a lifechanging and disfiguring injury that isolates him from the rest of the world. In hospital he began to write and create a whole new imaginary world, a text based game where players subscribe and receive their turns by mail. The world exists only in his – and their – minds. The game takes place in a futuristic America that has been ravaged by radioactive poisoning where players are seeking a safe location called Trace Italian. When two high school students take the game out into the real world a tragedy occurs and Sean is called to account for it. Through the novel the readers are taken backwards in time, through the progression and creation of the game, through Sean’s time in hospital, back to that moment that ultimately decided Sean’s future.
I read this in a day and a half. It’s not long, but it was difficult to get into at first until I became accustomed to Darnielle’s writing style. There is no clear beginning and end to this story; we are dropped into a memory, knowing that something terrible has happened to Sean but not really sure what just yet. That is revealed over time. The slow reveal can be excruciating to a demanding reader like myself, but I remained patient. I wandered through Sean’s memories, his stories, his game. I tried to understand him, and my first reaction was to sympathise with him, but my feelings changed along the course of the novel, while still trying to understand. I can imagine how his parents were so frustrated, because like me they lacked understanding, they wanted answers to a question they probably weren’t going to get, but I still couldn’t believe some of the things they said. The construction of this novel is irregular and unconventional but it all still makes sense and it suits the story. We work backwards, but its not always linear. There was every opportunity to be confused but somehow it all made sense.
The two high school students, Lance and Carrie, who take their play of Sean’s game out of the imaginative realm and into the real world are interesting catalysts for Sean’s backward train of thought, but this was never about them. It is where the lines between fantasy and reality blur for Sean, but the game was never the problem. The game seems to have been his salvation. And it’s not what has happened that’s surprising or shocking, because we know from the start it was something bad, it’s more the intricate details of it all, the things we don’t often think about. It’s also very hard to talk about without spoilers. The nature of this book and its heavy content means it won’t be for everyone, however there is a lot to be found here. There were times when I would reread paragraphs or whole pages, even once I’d finished, trying to wrap my head around the situation. Trying – and failing – to imagine what life was, and is, like for Sean. It’s difficult to process.
It’s not easy to stump me. This novel has done exactly that. I’m still sitting here wondering. I got sucked into it and then it spat me out at the end and I am still wondering. It is nothing short of brilliant, I just wish there was more to the answer. But maybe I am looking for something that does not exist.
Overall rating? 4 stars