Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Castles, by Ben Wretlind — an independent book review

Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with ScissorsCastles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors by Benjamin X. Wretlind

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Often, you can tell on the first page whether a writer knows what he or she is doing. There’s a flow, a grace to the way these writers construct their sentences that makes reading a joy.

Ben Wretlind is one of those writers, although his story is anything but joyful. Castles: A Fictional Memoir of a Girl with Scissors, fits into the “magic realism” category, although I did not know that when I started reading the book.

The story begins with Maggie at age six, living in a trailer on the edge of the desert, somewhere in the US, in fear of dust storms and her drunken, abusive mother. The only light in her life comes from her Grandma, who protects her from her mother’s worst and advises the young girl to listen to the voices in the wind. When Grandma dies, Maggie is literally on her own.

Maggie learns quickly to stay out of her mother’s way, not to engage with her mother’s boyfriends and how to “clean up her messes.” That’s the central theme of the novel.

This novel is one of those where you can take the possibly magical elements and view them as only symbolism, and as a childish or psychologically damaged mind’s interpretation of strange events. For example, there’s the old school bus on the edge of the desert, just outside the trailer park. It’s irresistible forbidden adventure to children, whose parents tell them not to go inside for their own good. Of course, the kids can’t resist it. It represents forbidden adventure, the dangerous wild beyond the fences, the untameable forces of nature that erode anything made by humans.

And it’s also a portal to the unknown and to the underworld. You can take it literally or as just the way that Maggie sees it. Beyond the bus is the desert. It periodically sends dust storms that smash through windows and clean up messes.

As I said, this is not a joyful book. Maggie is abused by her mother and others, she’s raped by her mother’s boyfriend, her boyfriend disappears, presumably murdered, her dog is butchered and she takes a series of abusive boyfriends, herself.

On the surface, it’s a story of a girl in a very hard life, learning how to cope with pain and terror — how to “clean up her mess.” And she also learns how to integrate the unknown terrors of the world beyond the abandoned . Maggie learns also to listen to the wind, finally. And within the wind and the dust storms, she discovers … well, I don’t want to spoil it. Let’s just say that within the storms, she finds the agents of just retribution and the strength to clean up her mess and take control of her own life.

And yet, you can also read this as the warped interpretation of a woman forced through years of abuse to do … again, I don’t want to spoil it.

There’s a lot to like in this book. It reminds me of Palahniuk in his darker moments. Wretlind is not afraid to put his readers and his characters through horrible situations, and to describe them clearly, without pretense and without squeamishness. But if you’re squeamish, you might have trouble in some parts.

Wretlind writes with that fluid, clear, spare style that the big publishing houses all say they demand (and then publish crap that does not adhere to it). So, even though the situation was horrible, Wretlind tells the story very, very well.

5 stars

Highly recommended

View all my reviews
On Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Castles-Fictional-Memoir-Girl-Scissors/dp/1461164591/

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