Review originally published here
.Why I Read It:
Last summer I read and really enjoyed Please Ignore Vera Dietz
, King's sophomore novel. Back in December, my bookstore gave employees and extra discount on top of our regular employee discount and I went a little crazy and splurged on a ton of books. This was one of them.
After reading three of King's novel, I've noticed that there's a common thread in all three of them: she suffuses the surreal into the real so effortlessly. There's always something weird or "quirky" about all her novels: in Please Ignore Vera Dietz
it was Charlie's ghost and the short chapters in the novel that were from a pagoda's point-of-view; in The Dust of 100 Dogs
it was the reincarnation of Emer in the body of 21st century girl Saffron. Despite this blurring between what's real and imaginary, her novels are always very grounded in real issues, In this novel, it's Lucky Linderman's dreams of being in Vietnam with his grandfather, the ants who follow him around and talk to him, and the "real issue" being dealt with is bullying.
Oh Lucky Linderman. I wanted to grab you and wrap you up in a giant hug. When I said that this book was about bullying, I'm not just talking about being jostled around a bit and being called names. Lucky is more than just bullied -- he is literally being assaulted almost every day by Nader and has the most horrific things done to him (and there's a Big Thing revealed later on that actually made me sick to my stomach). Watching Lucky struggle with it was heart-wrenching, and repeatedly reading him say that he's okay made it even worse, because he's clearly NOT. Worst of all though was reading about his parents trying to deal with it. I'm not a parent myself, but I imagine it must be a horrible feeling to watch your child being bullied and harassed and not being able to do anything about it. Watching them try to help and then his father conceding made me simultaneously mad and sad, and really brought out the layers and complications that come with bullying.
Speaking of layers, the secondary characters of this book were just as layered and complicated as Lucky. I already mentioned his parents, and their struggle with dealing with Lucky's bullying and how it made them a little more three-dimensional: their behaviour was at times frustrating, but it wasn't black-and-white. We also have Lucky's aunt and uncle, who both are not what they initially appeal. The uncle initially comes across as a really cool guy, while his aunt is a crazy pill-popper who is constantly diagnosing Lucky with depression. Both when you peel the layers off, they're both very different people. They're still extremely flawed, but their motivation is ambiguous at best and you'll find your sympathies for them changing throughout the course of the novel.
The whimsical aspect of this novel was also handled really, really well. The dreams that Lucky has are surreal in how REAL they actually feel, and the fact that Lucky brings back real artifacts from his dreams back home is odd, but it's never jarring. The ants that Lucky sees following him around serve as a kind of Greek, reflecting Lucky's true feelings and moods (as he's sometimes an unreliable narrator) and brought some humour to the book which contrasted with the overall sadder tone.
The love interest in the novel is never really the focus, as she's a few years older than Lucky, for which I was mostly glad because the girl showed signs of being a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is essential to Lucky's character arc though, and HER character arc was actually quite well done. We get to watch both of them grow into their own and forge their own path and learn to take charge of their lives, though both in very different ways.
I think I should also note that I found the ending with Nader to be slightly problematic, which was too bad because everything else was dealt with such tact and earnestness, but there were few other options for King to end the story without sounding like an After-School Special, so I applaud her for not taking the obvious and often treaded route that stories of bullying often take. Final Verdict:
King has once again brought a tale that utilizes magic realism in a whimsical and quirky way but still fits with a story that deals with very realistic and heavy issues. Lucky is an incredibly likable protagonist and my heart ached for him as I watched him try to deal with his bully and grow into his own. The issue of bullying is dealt with really well, and King really exposed the layers and complications that come with it. The secondary characters are given an equal amount of layers and no one is who they initially appear to be; they're overall very fleshed and well realized individuals, and while not always likable, they all felt REAL. I can't wait for King's next novel, and she's now become a "must buy" author for me.