It’s not often that I pick up a book without really knowing what it’s about. I have a fairly standard ritual before I make a purchase: I read the jacket and/or back cover. If I’m compelled, I read the first page. If I’m further compelled, I buy it and read the whole thing. You probably have a similar routine of your own.
But there are times when you pick up a book whose jacket and/or back cover don’t really tell you anything substantive, because such early reveals would ruin the reading experience. Chris Cleave’s Little Bee is the last book I bought without knowing the heart of its plot. (If I recall, the book jacket said something like “We can’t tell you what this book’s about. But trust me, you want to read it.”) I read Little Bee in two sittings. When I finished, I sat and stared at a wall (yes, seriously), churning it all in my head. It was that good.
So was Charm & Strange.
Here’s how the jacket reads:
Andrew Winston Winters is at war with himself. He’s part Win, the lonely teenager exiled to a remote Vermont boarding school in the wake of a family tragedy. The guy who shuts all his classmates out, no matter the cost. He’s part Drew, the angry young boy with violent impulses that control him. The boy who spent a fateful, long-ago summer with his brother and teenage cousins, only to endure a secret so monstrous it led three children to do the unthinkable. Over the course of one night, while stuck at a party deep in the New England woods, Andrew battles both the pain of his past and the isolation of his present. Before the sun rises, he’ll either surrender his sanity to the wild darkness inside his mind or make peace with the most elemental of truths—that choosing to live can mean so much more than not dying.
Not quite as cryptic as Little Bee, but not completely telling, either. What’s this “wild darkness” inside his mind? What does the sunrise have to do with anything? Why is choosing to live or die? What is the “secret” and what was the unthinkable thing they did?
These are all questions the publisher wants potential readers to ask, of course. Because then you buy the book to find out. Which I did. As I started reading, I realized that the information wouldn’t come quickly or easily.
You discover early on that a man has been mauled in the woods near Win’s school and for some reason Win is preoccupied with the details—but you don’t know why. The only way to get answers to your WHYs is to just keep reading. Trust me, you’ll have a lot of WHYs. But also trust me that it’s worth it to keep reading.
The day after I finished the book, I reached out to author Stephanie Kuehn to ask her about it. (Thanks, Stephanie!) Here’s what she had to say.
C&S unfolds gradually. Readers may think that they know where it’s going, but 95 percent of them will be wrong. (That included me). In what ways did this strengthen the story, in your opinion?
I chose to tell the story this way because I wanted readers to experience the world the way that Win experiences it. He’s telling his truth the only way he knows how. For me, this storytelling choice was about connecting readers empathetically to Win. Empathy doesn’t come from intellectually understanding someone’s situation, but by genuinely feeling it.
In what ways did your technique present challenges? (Both for yourself as a writer and in how readers experienced the book).
I suppose it was challenging because I also wanted the truth to be there from the first chapter. In balancing Win’s truth with the way he experiences himself and the world, it was difficult to predict how other people might read it and when they would pick up on the duality that was going on. In a way, I hoped it wouldn’t matter. I don’t really think of it as a book that can be “spoiled” but reactions I’ve heard is that people enjoy reading it without knowing what it’s about, which makes it a very hard book to talk about!
You have a background in clinical psychology. Did that background speak to your story; if so, how?
It did speak to the story, yes, but maybe not in obvious ways. My ideas and philosophies about change and violence and empathy are all in there. But I didn’t want to write a clinical story, so I tried to put some of my background aside and just let the narrator tell his story. More than anything I wanted to show Win as being a strong person, because the idea that mental illness is associated with ‘weakness,’ is a stigma that frustrates me to no end and it’s one I’m committed to fighting.
What do you admire most about Win?
His ability to endure.
If you could only share one scene of your novel with the world, which scene would it be?
The scene where Keith and Drew are walking in the New Hampshire woods, and Keith is trying to explain their family to his brother.
What have you learned from your readers? How has their reception affected the ways you view the book today?
I love hearing from readers. Writing is such a personal, solitary thing and when you put a personal, solitary thing out into the world, it’s a strange feeling. More a shout than an echo. So to know that people have connected with something you’ve written is very special. It’s everything. But I don’t think anything has changed how I view the book. To me, it’s something personal, and it always will be.