Hello Darkness by Anthony McGowan
Got to confess, bit of a fan of McGowan’s ever since I was lucky enough to once hear him read Donut Diaries aloud. That said though, this is a very tricky book to review. I’ve tried, but to really review it properly I’ve had to do the ultimate no-no so here’s your WARNING – HERE BE SPOILERS.
Someone’s on a killing spree at Johnny Middleton’s school and the school pets are the victims. Quickly fingered as the main suspect thanks to his problems last year, John quickly finds himself playing detective in the hope of not only vindicating himself as the gruesome chicken killer, but also finding the the real killer and the motive behind their grisly crimes.
This was incredibly tricky to sort out in my head afterwards. It’s one of those books that leaves you unsettled afterwards and it took me a day or two to figure out what it was that really left me.. not uncomfortable per se, but… disconcerted. Yes, disconcerted is probably the best word I can think of to describe it – that odd feeling where you’re not unhappy exactly, not uneasy, but something just doesn’t sit quite right and you can’t quite see yet how to make it sit straight. If you see what I mean.
Don’t get me wrong, this was not a book I didn’t enjoy reading. If anything I enjoyed it too much, I really got into it, resented putting it down in fact (I should have guessed really, this always happens with me and McGowan’s books). I fell in love with it as soon as John started narrating in that film noir style, that curious flat, matter of fact, to the point way of narrating that meant half the time I was envisaging John in a trenchcoat and hat, flicking the butt of a cigarette into the gutter, all in black and white with a piano tinkling nearby. It’s so catchy and so different too to the YA I’ve read recently (or even not-so-recently). Absolutely loved it, I really did, I genuinely didn’t want it to end even as I devoured each chapter.
Tht’s probably part of what got my feathers so ruffled. You see, SPOILERS John is mentally ill. Without his carefully separated red, white and blue pills, he starts to see the world completely differently, so in the book the mystery of the murdered pets becomes a noir mystery with himself cast as the ailing gumshoe. I spent two thirds of the book thinking how original, what a cool way to portray the school with it’s drama club ‘Queens’ syndicat and the Lardies mob operating a culinary mafia, the marginalised and nobody kids hanging out in the murk of the alleyway between buildings. The more I read though, the more I realised that no, this was all part of John’s psychosis and oh, it was such a disappointment to realise it wasn’t real. I loved being a gumshoe in that bizarre Chicago underworld of a school, with the crazed Queen in her Dorothy get-up, the vindictive Shank and glistening, blubbery (but ever so courteous and shark’s-smile polite) Paine of the Lardies. It almost hurt to realise that John wasn’t a reliable narrator and was making it all up, that he may have actually invented the entire situation. It was almost like my perception had been betrayed as much as his had, if that doesn’t sound too poncy and pretentious of me.
That’s what’s left me so unsettle: I fell for it, I got sucked in to John’s world and found his reality that much more interesting than what was really happening in that school. What’s worse, as cool and exciting as John’s world was, it was actually masking itself and was far more sinister than the real world and it’s pet murders could possibly be because it wasn’t what it seemed. That world I loved couldn’t be trusted….
Ach, maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe I’m getting completely caught up in it all, reading things into the book the author didn’t intend, winding myself up the more I think about it. But maybe that’s the point – I can’t stop thinking about it. I still can’t work out exactly what happened in that school or if I really want to; there’s a bit of ambiguity at the end of the book that I’m taking comfort in and I’m really hoping reality isn’t as different from John’s noir world as I think it probably is. I just can’t keep myself from turning events over in my head, trying to see what matches what between John’s world and reality, how point a became point z etc. Isn’t it supposed to go that the book that won’t leave you alone has got to a great read?
This is a review I’m not entirely happy with – I don’t think I’ve done the book justice at all because it is undoubtedly an excellent read and what I’ve just written is a bit of a mess, and a personal one at that. This book left me in a mess though and I know it’s one I’m going to have to pick up again, if only to put it to bed. It’s engaging, it’s intriguing, it’s everything you’d want in a murder mystery, but with that psychological twist that will just dig into you and leave you feeling….disconcerted. I don’t know exactly how I feel right now other than like I missed a step, but I know I will be strongly recommending Hello Darkness in my day job. Anything that can make me feel this deeply has got to be a fantastic read and I’ll certainly remember John and his world for a long time.