Charm & Strange is a book about hard things, but it’s a book that is full of heart and beautifully written. I never felt that the story was meant to shock; rather, it (like the narrator) hides its moments of trauma. The voice never falters, and there’s a wryness and distance that keeps it from becoming too emotionally charged.
I’ve heard that some readers have thought this was a SF title, but to me it’s abundantly clear that it’s not. The slow unfolding of Andrew/Win’s story may initially set up the idea that he’s right, but over the course of the book it becomes apparent that he is an unreliable narrator, hiding the truth even from himself.
The book is broken into two timelines–‘matter’ and ‘anti-matter’, which alternate chapters. This type of self-conscious structuring often doesn’t work for me, but Kuehn does it very well. I loved the way the chapters actually seemed to be echoes of each other, mirror images, slightly distorted.
Win himself is at the heart of the book, both narrator and main character. But he is also defined by his relationships to other characters, especially his family. There’s an element of the quintessential YA coming-of-age story here–how do you move beyond your family? How do you be come truly yourself? Win’s journey, though, is a little different. How do you come to terms with the dark places? How do you deal with them when they’re in you?
The sentence level writing is also great. Subtle and restrained, Kuehn somehow manages to create a sense of something happening beneath the surface. This is a book that manages to be both engaging and styled, where the written-ness of the book is apparent, but where this did not appear as a flaw. Writing like this is really hard to do successfully, but Kuehn does.
As I said above, this is a story about hard things. But for those teens who want to take them on, who want to grapple with the world, this is one I would absolutely recommend. It looks at darkness, but it doesn’t become dark. It resists shock value and easy answers in favor of something that is much more complex, and even beautiful.
My only quibble, which is so minor I almost don’t want to mention it, is that I never really got significance of the title, even when we get to the place where it occurs within the book. I wanted it to have resonance, but either I missed it, or that part didn’t quite work for me.
Book source: public library
Book information: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013; YA
I read this book for the 2013 Cybils. You’ll be able to see all of my Cybils reviews by clicking here.