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Charm & Strange

Charm & Strange - Stephanie Kuehn “Love doesn’t always look nice.” Few books manage to make me feel this way: cut open and broken and completely overcome. It’s difficult to talk about Kuehn’s debut in detail without revealing significant plot points; and I do feel this is a book best experienced as it is structured, that is, allowing the story to unwind from Andrew/Win gradually. His narrative is one of violence and blood and glimpses in between shadows, trauma layered deep in shame and visceral pain. His story emerges in fragments between the past and present, reality and dreams, relentlessly gaining clarity until its devastating climax. Kuehn has written a brilliant novel. It is confronting, yet empathetic. Heartbreaking, but affirming. It’s not an easy story to tell - Kuehn delves deep into disturbing places – but it is compelling and evocative. Through the use of rich imagery, the symbolism of chemistry and Win’s distinct cognition, Kuehn has written a novel that spurns straightforward classification. It seems to be one thing, but becomes another – not because Kuehn is being purposefully evasive or coy, but because this is the story that is true to Win. We read it as he experiences it, as it emerges from the recesses of his mind and body: raw, dark, and animal. There are various forms of conflict in the novel, but the central source is from within Win himself, and what he believes to be inevitable. The present day thread of the story deals with Win’s acceptance of his imminent change: that his Ego and Superego will be devoured by his ferocious Id, that what is at his core is monstrous. It’s this internal wrestling of what a person believes themselves to be, and what they want to be, that forms the crux of the novel. For Win, his deep-seated convictions give this battle an element of finality, that his metamorphosis is not only brewing, but inescapable. For all its twisting decent into horror, Charm & Strange is a compassionate novel, and while it doesn’t offer all the answers, it does extend a glimpse of hope. Even more than that, it provides a voice of understanding. And for readers who can connect with Win’s experience, the importance of this can’t be overstated. Much has been made of “darkness” in YA, but (to paraphrase Patrick Ness), “not engaging with darkness in fiction is abandoning teens to face it alone.” Charm & Strange is an important book because it offers support and solace to those who may feel beyond reach. Kuehn’s writing is strong – she has created a complex, challenging novel in beautifully rendered language that is compelling and true to Win’s voice. There is a depth of emotion and pain articulated in the story without it feeling forced or consciously manipulative. The novel tackles serious content respectfully, while being authentic to the experience of its teenage characters, who are flawed and complicated. Although not a lengthy book, Kuehn develops her characters well, choosing to show (rather than tell) the reader who they are through powerful scenes and flashbacks. There is a lot covered here, even outside the central premise of the novel, much of which Kuehn chooses to allude to rather than explicitly state. This is particularly effective in the early stages of the novel, where the reader needs to tease out the meaning from passages that seem to take a nebulous form between contemporary and paranormal. Charm & Strange is an intense novel, darkly psychological and unsettling. It takes the reader on a troubling journey, and arrives in a profoundly moving place. An advance reader copy of Charm & Strange was provided by the publisher via Netgalley.