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Monday, August 13, 2012

Review: Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King

Everybody Sees the Ants by A.S. King
Amazon | Goodreads
Contemporary/Magical Realism, 279 pages
Published October 3rd 2011 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Lucky Linderman didn't ask for his life. He didn't ask his grandfather not to come home from the Vietnam War. He didn't ask for a father who never got over it. He didn't ask for a mother who keeps pretending their dysfunctional family is fine. And he didn't ask to be the target of Nader McMillan's relentless bullying, which has finally gone too far.

But Lucky has a secret--one that helps him wade through the daily mundane torture of his life. In his dreams, Lucky escapes to the war-ridden jungles of Laos--the prison his grandfather couldn't escape--where Lucky can be a real man, an adventurer, and a hero. It's dangerous and wild, and it's a place where his life just might be worth living. But how long can Lucky keep hiding in his dreams before reality forces its way inside?

Michael L. Printz Honor recipient A.S. King's smart, funny and boldly original writing shines in this powerful novel about learning to cope with the shrapnel life throws at you and taking a stand against it.

This review has been in the making for ages. It's kind of ridiculous how long it's taken me to write it - to the point that I was wondering if I'd have to read the book again before I could - because it's hard to know what to say. Part of me just wants to say: Get it; read it. Part of me wants to say: A.S King should already be on your auto-buy list. But how else to talk about this complex, weird, painful, triumphant book without giving away some of its magic?

I guess I'll start with Lucky. I love Lucky Linderman as a narrator, and I think nearly everyone will. He's very relatable and rootforable, and his deceptively calm way of narrating just really works. And the pace at which things are revealed by Lucky is just damn near perfect. He's just this really well-designed gateway into what can be a very difficult (technically and emotionally) story. On the surface, his story is about bullying and self-worth, but it would be too easy to write it off as just those things, because the story is more complex than that, and Lucky is more complex than that - Lucky doesn't exist as just a victim of bullying, he is not defined purely in terms of what is done to him, and this story explores that and teaches Lucky that.

I normally talk about WSOD (willing suspension of disbelief) in stories when it doesn't work - when an author doesn't quite pull it off, and I'm not really able to suspend my disbelief. But when I am able to - when it's successful - it normally isn't addressed because it seems so natural. But I want to make a point to talk about it here because I think King's writing really drives this home - the entire concept and presentation of this story requires a huge WSOD, but it's done in such a way that you almost don't even need to be willing - it just happens, you just go with it, and before you know it, you're like, "Yeah, talking ants, state-shaped scabs, mother = squid/father = turtle, real-world dream-travels back to Vietnam to chat with your MIA/POW grandpa. Of course." It all just seems like such a completely logical way of seeing the world around you, and dealing with that world, that the reader's willing suspension is not only never broken, but it's not even really threatened. That's a pretty impressive feat in a story like this, which brings me to:

A.S. King should be on your auto-buy list. She has such an unflinching quality to her writing that I absolutely love. Combine that with a magical realism streak (yay!), and it's pretty much a guarantee that I'm going to like what she writes. But I don't think that's just me; I know magical realism isn't something that everybody is comfortable with (it's weird, it ignores boundaries, it makes you uncomfortable), but King uses it judiciously and she makes it work. She confronts things, and she does so in a unique, powerful way that affects the reader. She takes on a topic that many have tackled before (bullying and self-worth, and finding your place in the world and among your family, etc.), but she does so in what is very uniquely her own way. She also understands how to find a balance between a "normal" contemporary story and something a little more weird and quirky, so that fans of contemporary find themselves reading something more challenging in presentation, and fans of weirder stuff find themselves enjoying the contemporary story they may normally forego - both get genre-shaken, and I think that's a good thing.

And I...I don't want to say too much more than that, really, because I don't want to give even a tiny bit of the story away. Every little thing, down to the tiniest ant, has its place in this story, and sometimes those tiny things will creep up on you out of nowhere and hit you so hard that it takes your breath away - and that is the type of story that needs to be read understood experienced.

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