the waking dark by robin wasserman

I have a lot of feelings about The Waking Dark, so let’s talk about that, eh? Spoilers!

Okay, here’s the thing. The Waking Dark is not what I would necessarily say is a bad book — it’s got a compelling plot for about 3/4 of the book, the characters are interesting/complex enough, and the writing is strong-ish — but it’s not one I am going to recommend to, well, pretty much anyone.

I was interested in Oleander, Kansas and all the trauma and horror it experiences over the course of the book. I was interested in the weird and spooky religious elements, particularly Ellie’s narrative/experience. I appreciated the gritty realism of life in a place that small, the meth and homophobia and fanatical ostracism of difference. I was even interested in the overarching sense of conspiracy that drives the plot. But it was a hard book to get through, it took me a long time, and I had to look away often because I found it frequently plodding and sometimes almost incomprehensible.

My issues are thus:

  1. Though I understand the urge and appreciate the expanse of a story that moves from one POV to another and particularly in a story like this where it takes nearly the entire duration of the book to bring the main characters together, Wasserman’s meandering POV shifts sort of killed any chance that I was going to like the book. When you’re in a story like this with absolutely bonkers stuff happening, you need some order or at least some semblance of it. I think the book could have benefited greatly from a more clear division of POV, be that by chapter breaks or some other device. I also would’ve liked to stay with characters for similar amounts of time. The shifts were so jarringly un-announced early on in the book that I started to think that perhaps the formatting of my Kindle book was messed up.

  2. Seemingly important observations are made and then dropped, too many things go unexplained, and by the end of the book there’s no real sense of explanation for the reader. I’m most incensed by the doctor saying that she only told the kids what they needed to know, not everything, and having her get shot and then that mysterious proclamation going nowhere. None of them even question it. Like, I understand you’re pretty much at the brink of death, but that doesn’t even flit a question across your consciousness? The ending reminded me a lot of Stephen King’s Cell which I read so long ago I no longer remember the details, but remember a similar Really? That’s it? feeling at the end as I had with The Waking Dark. Appropriate that she mentions him in her acknowledgements, no?

  3. Wasserman’s writing is… often repetitive? And frequently sort of plodding in a distinctly unpleasant way. It’s not that her writing is bad, it’s engaging and sometimes exciting and carries her plot along fairly effortlessly, but there are points where she repeats the same sentence structure over and over again until it’s almost unbearable. The worst offense though, is that she will have a character posit a question or make a statement and then the character that should be responding thinks something or a string of somethings for a paragraph or two or three and sometimes so long that I literally went, “Are you kidding?” out loud and had to go back to see what the last statement or question had been so that I could follow the conversation. I mean, these are thoughts that seem so long that even though thinking occurs at lightning-speed in our brains, their conversational partners have to notice.

Even though it doesn’t seem like it, I did actually enjoy reading The Waking Dark. I liked the gore and the violence and the strangeness, the ugliness of all of it, the variety of points of view, the frankness with which Wasserman deals with sexual violence, drug use, fanatical religiosity, and the aching truth that sometimes parents do not know or do what is best for their children. I loved that the characters each had such distinct personalities and narrative styles, even down to word choice, and I loved that Wasserman was not afraid at all to just go for it. It’s not every day you read a young adult book — or an adult book for that matter! — that threatens to burn someone at the stake and not only does it, but has her mother light the pyre.

So while I’m not telling you to read this one, I am offering to read one of her other books with you, if you feel so inspired. You just let me know which one. Maybe not the Scooby Doo one, though.