My very first ever book that I posted a review of on this blog was Greenwood’s novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. It was (is) a pretty controversial read, but it emotionally devastated me. And, as my first review, I really did not have the frame of reference or general practice in critically thinking about what I was reading, so at the time, that emotional response meant I loved it. And while I absolutely still deeply respect it, and would recommend it (with content warnings), I am also now able to consider it with a bit more…nuance…both appreciating the intensity of the response it provoked, while also better recognizing the problematic aspects. All that to say, I bought this book when it was published a few years ago, because I loved Greenwood’s first novel so much, but delayed in starting this one after reading the blurb because I was nervous about the content. But, in the end, I just wanted to see what she did with it. And goodness, did Greenwood write another complex doozy of a novel here.
Tall, redhead-tempered, and chronic-pain-suffering Zee is plagued by a long list of worries: a hoarding and housebound mother, caring for her 5-year-old nephew when her sister isn’t around, the never-ending bills that come with adulthood…and more. Years ago, while in PT for the accident/injury that caused her now-chronic hip pain, she met Gentry, a young, shy, autistic man who, as an actual knight (sword, armour, castle, language, and all) pledged himself to be her champion. When Zee’s sister is abducted and the fragile structure of her life comes crashing down around her, Gentry steps up to help her deal with detectives, reporters, estranged family, and a (mostly hair-brained) rescue attempt that threatens to change the whole course of their lives, their futures, and their connection to each other.
Let me start with the warnings(?) I have for readers about this book. It is just as morally grey as Ugly and Wonderful, well maybe not *quite* as grey, but grey enough that you should go into it prepared for that. I found myself reading and cheering for outcomes and people that, honestly, I don’t think I would in real life. I mean, there are still the “big bads,” like the KKK and racism and that overly aggressive toxic masculinity of rural white America, and I had no mixed feelings/qualms about hating them. (On this note, there is one section in the middle, mostly all concentrated together, with some very explicit racist language and ideology – so be careful picking this book up if that isn’t something you want to read. I honestly was a bit frustrated because I think the points could have been clearly made without that, but regardless, it’s there.) And yet, there were some other characters (if I’m being fully honest, most of the characters, other than Gentry) who were just plain dislikable in a number of ways, for a number of reasons, and yet Greenwood’s writing manages to give them a perspective and a understandability that kinda, almost, mostly makes you cheer for them. The thing is, so many of the terrible/hurtful decisions made, are made for reasons that are universally recognizable, like love, protecting those you love, the (sometimes blind) blood ties of family, and (though these were also the hardest ones to admit the recognizability of) self-preservation. There was so much self-preservation. But these characters also find themselves in complicated situations that don’t always have clear, easy (or even right) answers, based on their life experiences and exposures to date.
So, basically, I don’t know how she does it, but yet again, Greenwood takes horrible and sometimes icky situations (like kidnapping and hoarding and tragic outcomes of *unnecessary* sacrifice and dashed beliefs in family goodness and some of the underbelly aspects of society) and makes them…kind of sweet? Having the story told from multiple perspectives (though Zee was the primary), was a major contributing factor on this front, I believe. Zee, especially, made many decisions that hurt people, and yet being able to see why she made them, the motivating factors and her goals of saving her sister and protecting her nephew, did stir a lot of empathy that otherwise I would have been hard-pressed to find. Plus, the way she accepted Gentry exactly as he was (despite definitely making selfish decisions when it came down to his involvement), was endearing.
This was really just such an original story and situation. I have never read a book that is partially (though not overwhelmingly) narrated in “Middle English.” And the entire prison break and kidnapping and off-the-books rescue storyline, with quite a bit of the characterization focused on those with ties to prison (whether because family had spent time there, they spent time there themselves, they volunteered there, etc.), and the resulting “underbelly of the midwest” society, made for a compelling (and very drama-filled!) plot. I honestly cannot speak to the way Gentry’s autism was portrayed – it’s such a complex disorder that can manifest in so many ways, both on its own and in combination with other disorders/disabilities – so I don’t want to write any opinion on that. I felt, for the most part, that it was accepted in stride by the majority of the characters, which was refreshing. And there was some acknowledgement about navigating the world as an autistic person and how Gentry felt ready to do so, but his guardians perhaps did not, which I do believe is an important and common (as it is a universal aspect of coming of age to look for independence) conflict. How it played out exactly, I am sure will be a polarizing aspect of the story, but the one bright spot is that Gentry took his own agency and made his own choices.
Another thing that I anticipate being a bit polarizing, as it was in Ugly and Wonderful, is the nuanced way that Greenwood looks at young people in impossible situations. This time, Zee’s young nephew, Marcus. She details the family/trust connections Marcus has that may not be as healthy or have as much opportunity/security, versus the less known extended family with more resources/safety but less connection. It’s such a great look at the complicated situation of child welfare and why those with resources find it easier to take the child out of the familiar to be safe, as opposed to using those resources to make the familiar, safe. It’s a loaded conversation, likely controversial, but also addresses deeply important questions.
I am having a hard time giving this book a rating. I was invested in the unique and dramatic story, the well-developed characters (I kept wanting to pick it up to see what happened next, which is always a good sign), and the writing quality was high, flowing easily and compellingly. Plus, like I said, Greenwood includes some polarizing aspects, and that always makes for gripping reading, for good or bad. And yet, there were some cringe-y parts. Some that I knew could have been done differently and still gotten the point across, some that were just your standard unlikable-character cringe (not a thing I automatically dislike in a book, since that’s very genuine characterization), and some that I’m just still not sure about. So…I would recommend it, but with reservations and the caveat that if any part of it sounds like it might not be right for you, to steer clear.