What Strange Creatures, the most recent novel written by Emily Arsenault, is a story on the surface of a sister’s quest to prove her brother’s innocence after his girlfriend is found strangled by the roadside. Underneath that plot lies family pain and hardship through relationships that aren’t fulfilling, expectations that were not met, and a seemingly never-ending cycle of demise in the Battle family.
Arsenault did an excellent job of portraying that demise as seen through the eyes of Theresa, the main character, through her relationship with her brother and their mother. She weaves in the past with the present to show a now adult sibling relationship, as well as a mother/daughter relationship, that are both clearly dysfunctional and yet still caring in their nature. Her character descriptions and dialogue were consistent and true to their voices, and the story moved steadily along. The book was long at 365 pages, yet she did not seem to be superfluous in her writing. I did, however, find myself at times to be rather uninterested in the sub-plot that she chose to weave in throughout the novel, that of Theresa’s ongoing and relentless investigation of a local politician as a possible suspect for the girlfriend’s death.
From the start, I found it interesting that the opening word on the book’s back cover description is “Scandal.” However, this is a word that evokes strong feelings and a very theatrical feel. It does not fit in well with the low-key, non-dramatic writing of Arsenault’s writing, even as a proposed novel of suspense. Although I understand that book covers are not always the work of the author itself, but rather that of their publishers, the cover content will, or will not, draw in readers to pick up the book and buy it. I believe that book descriptions should be both compelling and appropriate, as they are key to its ultimate success.
Furthermore, I feel that the back cover material should not have revealed that Theresa would attempt to prove her brother’s innocence in the story. It would have been much more compelling for me if the book had left her brother’s fate up to the reader to discover as part of the moving plot. I certainly would have enjoyed the story more had I continually been asking in my head, “Did he, or didn’t he?” as I progressed through the novel.
Not having read any of Emily Arsenault’s previous works, I found her overall writing style in What Strange Creatures to be eerily sad. The complex family dynamics that so many families endure is evident in her story, yet the end result was a feeling of sorrow. So despairing, in fact, that had I not agreed to write a review of the story, I am not sure if I would have finished it. Without the feeling of “lightness” to the story or any anticipation of hope, the story at times felt dreadful for both the characters, and for myself as a reader, until the very end. Very few of the chapters allowed for a “breather” or two for the reader to mentally step away from their overall despondency.
As an avid reader, I did come to understand something about myself through this read, though. Although I do not require the proverbial ‘happy ending’ for my reading pleasure with every new storyline, I apparently do like to see a little rainbow light up the sky every now and then after a summer’s rain. This self-realization was a welcomed epiphany as I seek out my next read, yet unfortunately What Strange Creatures did not provide me with any such levity or pleasure within its pages.
In conclusion, as I reflect on Arsenault’s main character, Theresa, I feel for her… for her lack of luster in life, for her seemingly morose outlook despite the decent life she leads, and for her almost self-pitying nature. Had she been a ‘real’ person, I’m quite sure that I would not have liked her very much at all. I wish that there was something more, something sanguine that I could feel for her. Something that would have made me smile… Yet I suppose the fact that Arsenault’s writing was able to conjure up those feelings for one of her characters reveals her true talents as a writer, after all.
I would choose to read another of Arsenault’s stories, if for no other reason than to compare it against this one with the hope it would be more uplifting, and cause me to turn the pages with more enthusiasm and interest. I may or may not refer this book to others, however, as I do believe that many readers seek a small escape from life, as they dive into each and every new book they turn to for their reading pleasure.
Do you enjoy reading stories that are not uplifting, or do you like the existence of the “happy-ending”? Do you finish reading a novel even if it doesn’t encourage you to turn its pages?
I prefer stories that are dark. In fact, my book club makes fun of me for always suggesting stories that are bleak. What I do require, however, is an interesting plot. Characters that just sit around being talking heads–or crying heads–will get their covers closed!
That’s hilarious, Chris! Somebody’s got to bring those readers to the ground, right? I share a similar sense of responsibility, but with ill-timed jokes;)
Good writing trumps all for me. I remember closing Revolutionary Road 1/3 of the way through just to go downstairs and say to my parents, “The characters in the book I’m reading have just made a plan to escape. They’re doomed, and I know it and they don’t, and it’s just so horrible!” I was on “vacation” and my parents are pretty light-hearted people. I could have saved my evening by doing ANYTHING happy with them. Instead I stayed up til one a.m. to finish and went to bed more depressed than I’d been in years! Did the same thing with Elie Wiesel’s Night and my husband!
Those depressing stones still occasionally haunt… their intent, to be sure. I’m happy I read them;)
I generally choose not to read dark, unless I hear it’s been banned by anyone :-). What I like least is fiction for adult readers in which bad things happen to children. I close those covers at the first hint of abuse, by my own choice. And yet, I agree that Elie Wiesel’s Night is essential reading for everyone, because sadly, it’s not fiction, and we must know the truth.