When I was casting about for a Halloween read, I briefly considered this book and got some great feedback from Sandy and Natalie that it would be the perfect choice. I didn’t read it at that time due to its length, but for some reason, I decided I wanted to start off the new year with a creepy and disturbing read and went ahead and got right to it in the first few days of 2012. What I found here was more than disturbing and powerful. It was a tale of suspense and grotesqueness that kept me completely engrossed and put a permanent grimace on my face the entire time I was reading. The monsters in this tale were in no way predictable and the cast of characters was so maligned and repulsive that I simply could not look away. It was a pretty impressive read.
I felt extremely sympathetic toward Oskar’s plight. What he went through was no ordinary bullying, and every time the perpetrators of his torture showed up, my stomach knotted with tension. Oskar lived a nightmare with these boys and there was no one to help him. It made me so angry to see that even the teachers at Oskar’s school refused to get involved and his plight reminded me that there are so many kids out there that are suffering the way that this boy was. When the strange Eli first appeared, I was moved that Oskar had found a friend, but later I realized that Eli was more than that: she was his power and his retribution. Though she was ill-dressed and more than a little malodorous, Eli began to move from the realm of monster to something closely resembling human in her interactions with Oskar. It was their friendship that kept my hope alive for these two confused little people, but there were secrets that Eli was keeping from Oskar, secrets that were chilling and more than a little stomach churning.
Yes, Eli was not what she first appeared to be, but even in her extremely dangerous and loathsome habits, she was not the real monster of this story. The real monsters were the terribly flawed people around her, including the repellent and utterly abhorrent man who was fostering Eli and ensuring her survival. In the mid-section of this book, this man undergoes a hideous change at his own hand and truly becomes the outward monstrosity that he has always been on the inside. The other true villains are the bullies who push Oskar to his breaking point, proving once and for all that the true freaks of nature are the ones that live among us disguised as normal people. One may argue that Eli is the real problem, the real instrument of evil, but I posit that this is only how it appears on the surface and a thorough reader will easily see that Eli is not the one to be feared, though she is far from safe and wholesome.
While I found this book to be highly disturbing for oh so many reasons, it was also captivating and it forced me to ask questions about the true nature of evil and about the innocence that abounds, even in those who appear to be anything but innocent. The book was filled with monstrousness of all types and there was no scarcity of brazen and horrific images, but at its core, this was a story of friendship and loyalty, trust and love. It may have been hard to see these altruistic nuggets amid the mire of ugliness that surrounded them, but the more I think on it, the more I come to believe that this was a story about faith, hope and the courage to do the things you must, despite the price you must pay to get them done.
Discovering and reading this book was quite an experience for me, for while a lot of it was hard to swallow and made my knees weak, it was like finding a diamond in a pile of refuse. It was disturbingly graphic and scary, but the fact remains that it told a very powerful story in a way that will captivate many. If you’re not a reader with a strong stomach, I would say that this one is better avoided, but if you can look past the gore and discomfort, this is a book that will blow you away with its implications. A truly one of a kind way to start off the reading year. Recommended.