When nearly killing a classmate gets seventeen-year-old Sadie Su kicked out of her third boarding school in four years, she returns to her family’s California vineyard estate. Here, she’s meant to stay out of trouble. Here, she’s meant to do a lot of things. But it’s hard. She’s bored. And when Sadie’s bored, the only thing she likes is trouble.
Emerson Tate’s a poor boy living in a rich town, with his widowed mother and strange, haunted little brother. All he wants his senior year is to play basketball and make something happen with the girl of his dreams. That’s why Emerson’s not happy Sadie’s back. An old childhood friend, she knows his worst secrets. The things he longs to forget. The things she won’t ever let him.
Haunted is a good word for fifteen-year-old Miles Tate. Miles can see the future, after all. And he knows his vision of tragic violence at his school will come true, because his visions always do. That’s what he tells the new girl in town. The one who listens to him. The one who recognizes the darkness in his past.
But can Miles stop the violence? Or has the future already been written? Maybe tragedy is his destiny. Maybe it’s all of theirs.
I have loved every book that Stephanie Kuehn has written so far, including her latest: Delicate Monsters.
Delicate Monsters is a psychological thriller that does not tiptoe around the perversion of human nature. On the contrary, Delicate Monsters is a psychological thriller that stares into the darkness face-on with wide, curious eyes, takes it and explores it layer by layer. There are some authors that imply the wickedness of their characters leaving you to imagine the extent of their depravity. And then there are some, like Stephanie Kuehn, who bare it all – mind, thoughts, intentions, behaviours, everything – and will still find ways to surprise you. There isn’t a place Kuehn will not venture, and the results are unflinching, graphic, and at times disturbing. Her writing and its subject matter will make you uncomfortable and squirm, but it is what makes her novels so effective and powerful.
With its cast of characters, each as twisted, complex and broken as they come, paired with the unreliable narration and an inherently psychological narrative, this book is largely character driven. Taking on three character perspectives, the story follows Sadie, Emerson, and Miles, each with their own demons and afflictions. As the characters are teenagers, it explores their psychological transgressions on a micro and then macro level. By necessity, this novel is filled with teenage angst, sex, lust, selfishness, abuse and violence, institutions that fail those in need, and devil-may-care attitudes that will chill your core.
There is no prudence in these characters nor are there any attempts to be – this book is unapologetic in it portrayal of troubled, fractured people, shattered by their past and now broken by the absence of their futures. The characters we see in Delicate Monsters are, at its beginning, in a dead-end – it is what they do that makes this book compelling.
For some books, the energy or force of its story is growth. In Delicate Monsters, it is regression that propels the story forward. With the story’s progression, the narrative follows a slow descent into the moonless spaces of the characters’ psyche. Appearances are, indeed, deceiving in this story; surfaces are illusions of the depths underneath. Delicate Monsters asks the penetrating questions people are too often afraid to ask others and, more importantly, ask themselves. It examines how people can have the capacity to encapsulate with all the sin, pain, and wrongness in the world and still be human.
And yet, it goes deeper than that. Kuehn sears a haunting image of the power of the human mind. How we forget the things that we shouldn’t, how we can get lost in our consciousness, and how our minds are very much our own but at the same time are sometimes as unfamiliar as the strangers we see on a daily basis. It illuminates on the layers of unintended deception and repression in attempts of self-preservation, and how delusions and avoidance of pain and truth can have gradual and devastating effects. How universes exist within our consciousness, and how, for some, nightmare is a reality; for others, reality is a nightmare. As Zizek said, fantasy realized is a nightmare.
Words like absolution and forgiveness and redemption would never apply to someone like him. Those terms were just abstractions. Names for what other people called the moments between darkness.
Of course, with its heavy-handed themes and psychological-orientated analysis, mental illnesses and disorders are present in the novel. Though it is never explicitly stated what each character may suffer, rather than giving labels and diagnoses weight, the book’s attention is given to more important and relevant things: histories, traumas, environments, relationships, and consequences of each. After all, Delicate Monsters is not an examination of what mental illnesses the characters suffer, but what can potentially maim a person so much that they become who they are.
It may be psychological thriller, but Delicate Monsters is also part tragedy. Not tragedy of the ideological and political kind that steels your resolve and reinvigorates your will to do bad things because of bad times, but a tragedy of the human condition. It is not that those with mental illnesses should be pitied; it is the outrage and heartbreaking reality that the events that transpire in the book are within the realm of possibility, that actions can cause such a profound ripple effect that take incalculable time to manifest. Great pain stems from painful pasts. Delicate Monsters sheds light on these issues with surprising sensitivity given the grimness and severity of its themes.
Delicate Monsters is not for the faint of heart. It is a dark book, a heavy book, with not much of a higher moral or point to the story and has content that may disturb and upset. There are, though, its messages which are eye-opening and sobering in a twisted way. Kuehn’s proficiency in writing excellent, thorough and vigorous character studies shine through in Delicate Monsters, and is a distinct highlight of the book. Even with its open-ended ending – which befitted the nature of the novel – Delicate Monsters is a fascinating, chilling and unique piece of storytelling that engages you and makes you think, and shows how sometimes broken things cannot be mended, try as we might, and how that in itself is a tragedy.
Book Name: Delicate Monsters
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin