I've been a reviewer since February 2001, when I began writing for my local newspaper. In 2010 the paper did away with their arts section and I went completely online. I review science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy and dystopian in young adult and mainstream adult. I'm also interested in travel writing, history, and general non-fiction, but my main focus is sci-fi/fantasy.
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year of high school, he is forced to examine everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.
Meanwhile, the crisis of faith spawned by a young missionary’s disillusion in Africa prompts a frantic search for meaning that has far-reaching consequences. As distant as the two stories initially seem, they are woven together through masterful plotting and merge in a surprising and harrowing climax.”
Okay, first of all, you should know that this review has spoilers. I can’t think of any way to talk about the book in any depth without talking about certain twists that take place, so you have been warned. HERE BE SPOILERS.
To those of you still with us after that dire warning, you should know that I’m not entirely sure if I liked this book or not. I think I get what Whaley was trying to accomplish with this narrative, and I applaud him for working in as many layers of story as he did. However, I also think there were some flaws in his execution that kept me from really enjoying the book.
One of the things that I think worked well was the inclusion of the different points of view for different characters. The chapters alternate between Cullen, who gives us the first-person view of the plot, and Benton and Cabot, whose stories are narrated in third person. Even in Cullen’s chapters, though, there are moments of third-person point of view, which I eventually came to think of as dissociative episodes. More on that later.
The Lazarus woodpecker, the bird that everyone is so excited about, seems to be both a symbol of hope and a symbol of delusion. Initially, the town embraces the idea that this supposedly extinct bird has been found alive, and they look forward to the benefits that the town will reap in tourism and national attention. By the end of the book, it has been proven that the woodpecker is not, after all, still around, and the town is now in the grip of crushing disappointment. In fact, Cullen characterizes the Lazarus woodpecker as a false hope in the final chapter.
Unfortunately, being so firm in stating that the woodpecker never was real kind of ruins what Whaley tries to do on the last page, which is to introduce ambiguity as to whether or not Cullen’s brother Gabriel comes back home. I say this because I think the author was trying to have his readers cling to that little bit of hope—and indeed, in reading other reviews of this book, many readers did assume that Gabriel made it home safely. The thing is that there are many clues to point to the fact that he doesn’t, and that detracts from the ending. The entire book seems to run on the theme of second chances—the woodpecker popping up and Gabriel coming home being the two big ones—but then the author blatantly says that there are none.
On top of this, there is a dangling plotline—or, if not dangling, one that really doesn’t fit into the rest of the story. Cullen’s cousin Oslo dies of an overdose at the start of the book, and there really doesn’t seem to be any reason for him to be there, or to have died, or to even be mentioned. It does cause Oslo’s mother, Cullen’s aunt, to descend into terrible grieving; however, she doesn’t factor into the plot much either. In fact, given that the novel is supposed to feature the mystery around Gabriel’s disappearance, throwing another family tragedy into the mix seems clunky.
Finally, readers are going to get more than eighty percent of the way through this book before they find out that the two timelines being followed are not concurrent at all. The Benton/Cabot timeline begins a full year before Cullen’s, and it was really jarring to see the point where the stories intersect, because it is completely different from what you’ve been led to believe. I’m all for twists in stories, but they need to be set up properly so that when they’re brought to light, the reader doesn’t have a “WTF?” moment and go searching back through the book to see if they missed something important. That’s pretty much what I did, and I was annoyed to realize that the moment of intersection came out of the clear blue sky.
So, here’s what I think the author was doing: he was writing a book in which the first person narrator (Cullen) is a man who is looking back at a particular summer in his childhood. This older Cullen is in therapy, as borne out by his frequent mentions of a Dr. Webb whom he speaks with about things. Cullen is chronicling not just the summer that his brother vanished, but also the summer when he himself had a psychotic break. Cullen often speaks in third person during his chapters, sometimes spinning out elaborate fantasy sequences, and sometimes describing “real life” events that he’s part of. His final episode is on the final page, and it consists of him fantasizing that his brother has returned, and doing so in such a powerful way that he reacts to the phantoms he sees in his head.
Is this a lot to read into a short young adult novel? Maybe. But the other choice is to say that Whaley put in mentions of a doctor and dissociative episodes that have no bearing on the story. This is possible as well. Personally, my brain tries to make sense of things, and this is the supplemental tale that I told myself after finishing the book. I have no clue if I’m correct or not. I’m not entirely sure that it matters.
Did I like this book? I’m not sure. Did I appreciate the attempt at this particular brand of storytelling? Yes. Do I think that the author knocked it out of the park? No. Do I think that it was worth the read? Yes. Make of all of that what you will. I suspect this one will simmer in my thoughts for a while, regardless of any opinion I might have on the matter.
This review originally appeared on Owlcat Mountain on June 2, 2014.