Monday, June 15, 2015

Fell of Dark by Patrick Downes

I see faces all over the place. In dust on windowpanes, in carpets, in plaster, and the branches of trees. In the folds of clothes thrown onto the back of a chair. A man’s death mask—open mouth, bullet hole in his forehead—shows up in the layers of a stone I keep in my pocket. I have a frowning man in a fingerprint.

Once I saw your face in my breath. It was a February night under a streetlight. I can’t count how many times since then I’ve looked for you in the mist.

My friend asked me to read this book; his friend had written it. It would have been awkward to review if I hadn’t liked it—but thankfully, I did. I don’t typically read young adult novels, not because they’re stupid or immature but because most of them seem like retreads of the same magical-child-hero narrative. I suspected at first that that’s what I was getting in Fell of Dark, which begins with the death of the narrator’s father, and continues with a number of quasi-mystical miracles, like the blood that only the narrator can see spouting from the invisible holes all over his body. But it never congeals into a story of heroism—not a typical one, anyway—or even something as relentlessly plot-driven as your Harold Potters and what have you. I can see that frustrating some readers. Maybe not young ones, but the kind of older readers who return to YA literature for its familiar comforts.

But it’s also the novel’s main strength. The plot, as it is, centers around two very troubled teens who trade long sections of narration. Erik is the one with the dead father, who bleeds, who cannot stop growing to gigantic proportions, who addresses a second person throughout his narration who, it is clear, he hasn’t met yet. Thorn is the angrier one, who loathes his parents, who are cruel to him because his sister died saving him from drowning:

I have this fantasy. My mother will come out of hell. My father, if he can’t come out, will die in his Gehenna. I want her to forgive me. I never wanted Salome, their shining star, my shining star, to turn into a seahorse. I want to stop feeling like a monster. Murderer. I want to have one voice in my head, mine.

The prose is lyric, but simple and shorn. It does a lot, I think, without ever trying to do too much. Something is sacrificed in the differentiation between the two characters, but they are in a sense meant to overlap. Erik and Thorn, we sense—and the jacket tells us—don’t know each other but are headed toward a meeting, or perhaps a confrontation. That confrontation, when it comes, is brief, violent, and almost entirely “off screen.” That’s a bold choice, and one that consciously refuses to engage with our expectations of plot, especially in a genre that can be so formulaic.

In some ways, Fell of Dark never came together for me. The episodic and dream-like nature of the twin narratives collide, but they don’t really cohere, and perhaps that’s by choice. But I enjoyed the novel’s strong and idiosyncratic voice.

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