For those who may not have been paying attention to YA trends of late, thrillers are currently the genre du jour. Not my thing personally, but I’m intrigued by the shift away from speculative genres of urban fantasy/paranormal romance and dystopia to a no-less-genre genre but still markedly contemporary kind of story. Charm & Strange, which was published in 2013, is more of an emotional thriller than an action thriller, but heart-pounding, emotions-running-high thriller it is. The best part (for me) is that it does invoke an obviously speculative trope without being kitschy, cutesy, or pandering. It uses fantastical devices the way they’ve been frequently used throughout history—to explain and make sense of the impossible and to provide comfort in the face of horror.
Drew Winters is an angry, whiny, and sickly boy, the middle child of a rich Virginian family. Surrounded by uncaring, inconsiderate, and/or abusive family members, his sole ally his earnestly protective yet fallible older brother Keith, a summer vacation with his extended family becomes the catalyst for a family tragedy, and an obscene consequence of his family’s secrets.
Win Winters is a loner teenage boy at a preppy boarding school in Vermont that he’s attended since age twelve. He has almost no friends, and that’s how he likes it. He’ll do whatever is necessary to push people away so they can stay out of his nexus of tragedy, pain, and violence.
Charm & Strange tells in alternate chapters the stories of Drew and Win, the past and present, and the battle to emerge on the other side as whole … whatever shape that may take.
This will be a SPOILERY review.
Charm & Strange is a powerful novel with exceptionally strong, bare-bones prose that’s sharp, inciteful, and emotional in the things it says and doesn’t say. Stephanie Kuhen does some really amazing things with characterization, especially when it came to making a whiny, off-putting pre-teen boy worth caring about and investing in, not the least because you can feel the subtle yet powerful wrongness that is his family and the world he lives in, even if he doesn’t have the vocabulary or knowledge of concepts to put the wrongness into words. The speculative element is nicely incorporated and is incredibly important to Drew and Win’s stories, as well as the novel’s structure.
To get things out in the air, Charm & Strange hinges around sexual abuse. Normally I dislike stories in which a child or a teenager’s sexual abuse is this ~big mystery~ from a narrative perspective, wherein you know something horrible happened to them, and the dread and tension grows as the narrative progresses, and the climax, or a scene near the climax, involves the Big Reveal of said abuse. It reads as shock value, and when a story’s tension is partially or wholly related to the reveal of What Terrible Thing Happened to the Protagonist, the Terrible Thing feels really effing obvious. (This is something I disliked about The Perks of Being a Wallflower.)
Charm & Strange takes a different tack in the role sexual abuse plays in the story. The emphasis is not as concerned with the abuse happening and more with the interpretation and coping involved in dealing with and processing it. The question isn’t “What happened?” or “Did it happen?” Rather, it’s “What is real?” and “Who, or what, am I?”
Through Drew’s imagery and Win’s furious death grip on the belief that he is a werewolf and will change into a wolf on the full moon as soon as he is fully ready, he reshapes the story about his past trauma into a metaphor that tells the story without telling it at all. Win’s belief that he is a werewolf gives him a channel through which to go on surviving after his father’s abuse, through which to see himself, but also to fear his own actions as he obsesses over whether he has or will hurt someone because of what he is (just as Keith worries about the likelihood that their father’s abuse will pass down to later generations, that they’ll abuse their own children the same way they were).
Charm & Strange is a story about how to tell a story, how to even comprehend and build a narrative when the worst has happened. We are all the result of our past, and our past gives us images and narratives and meanings to make sense of and build our stories. Hidden underneath those images and narratives is a truth and a reality that is no less true for being understood and represented in an undoubtedly fantastical way.
This isn’t to say that the use of werewolves and Drew and Win’s belief in their and their family’s werewolf identities are solely metaphors. I mean, they are, but they’re also treated with scientific rigor and consideration. What does it mean, scientifically, to change shape? To embody two states of being? How can or does a singular identity arise from the incongruity?
Charm & Strange would typically fall outside my wheelhouse, but I ended up digging it far more than I expected to. It’s a compelling well-written story that takes on real-life problems and situations with a slanted, sideways angle, and in doing so gets down and dirty with the meta consequences of the way trauma shapes the telling and the embodiment of a person’s story. Stephanie Kuehn currently has three other contemporary, thriller-type novels published, and I plan to read them all.