I am reading Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith. As I was browsing the bookstore in Petoskey last weekend, the owner walked by just as I picked it up. “That’s a great book,” he gushed, “I didn’t like the movie, and the next two in the series aren’t nearly as good, but that book is fantastic.”
I took it directly to the counter, with one other selection, based solely on that recommendation. I didn’t read the back cover, the reviews on the inside flap, or even the first few sentences of text. That’s how much I trust the opinion of a book store owner.
That was a mistake.
It is a well-written book. It has grabbed and held my attention. If I walk away from it, I will be haunted by questions of how it all works out. I may do just that, anyway.
I do not like books that disturb my rest.
I don’t like to think of our human race as evil.
I like redeeming characters, and I expect a happy ending.
There seems to be a trend, lately, for books – movies, too – that place humans in awful situations, forced to do unthinkable things to survive.
It’s not altogether new. I am still haunted by books like The Grapes of Wrath, Sister Carrie and As I Lay Dying, all classics by revered authors. I still remember a couple short stories that were required reading in high school. The first was To Start a Fire, perhaps by Jack London, about a man dying in the frozen wilderness. The second was about a hive of bees, as it was attacked and destroyed by ants. I’m sure the writing was wonderful and the message strong, but they each left me horrified.
I have two books partially read that I had to put down just because I couldn’t take it anymore.
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller is a science fiction book set in this country, in the near future, after a flu epidemic wiped out most of the population and some kind of nuclear incident poisoned the water. Roving bands of pillagers are a constant threat. It is filled with one heart-breakingly beautiful sentence after another. It is still not worth it. Not to me.
Slammerkin by Emma Donaghue is set in 18th century London. A young girl is accosted on the street, becomes pregnant from the encounter, is kicked out onto the street by her mother, is gang-raped, contracts gonorrhea, is taken in by a prostitute who gets her started in the business…there is no way this is going to have a happy ending. Donaghue is a good writer with a strong feminist perspective. I have read and enjoyed many of her books. I could not finish this one.
Child 44 is set in the Soviet Union at the end of Stalin’s regime. Crime is “non-existent” except for crimes against the state. Everyone is afraid. Anyone could be the next one accused of disloyalty. Children turn in their parents, neighbors report neighbors, family members turn on each other to save themselves. It appears that there is a real killer out there, murdering children. To say it out loud, certainly to investigate, would be seen as treason. I’m learning a great deal. It is holding my interest. Still, it disturbs my sleep. I may have to set it aside as well.
I don’t mind strong subject matter. I can stand tension; I can handle a little fear. What I need, along with that, is a thread of humanity, a hero or two, the promise of something better…
Without something to save it, a well-written book is just not good enough.