charm & strange
Winner of the 2014 William C. Morris Award, charm & strange (2013), a debut novel by Stephanie Kuehn, relays the story of Andrew Winston Winters. The plot bounces between two time frames, the past and the present. In the present, Win is at boarding school in Vermont, shutting out most, if not all, of his fellow boarders, driven by the instinctual urge to hide his darkest secrets. In the past, Drew experiences druggings, violence, and perhaps hallucinations. It is these hallucinations, layered over Win’s memories, that drives him to unleash what he believes to be a wolf trapped inside himself.
charm & strange tantalizes readers with hints and leading information regarding how the main character became the withdrawn loner he is at school. Kuehn slips from past to present and back with surprising ease, never letting the reader any closer to the truth than the moment deems necessary. She builds Win’s story on readers’ assumptions, presumptions, and investigations, weaving together reality and fantasy, all while questioning the truthfulness of the main character and his memories and mental state. Another interesting layer is that Win’s family is fairly wealthy; Win even calls them “cultured” at one point. The reality that mental illness can hit anyone, at any level of the social/economic stratosphere is refreshing and grounded.
Unsettling in spades, Stephanie Kuehn’s charm & strange is an excellent YA novel, with an effectively unreliable (but relateable) narrator, realistic friendships, and the aftermath of cataclysmic trauma. The story will beguile readers and leave them with a prickle on the back of their necks and a cold tendril of truth in their minds.