Published by Thomas Dunne Books
Publication date: August 9th 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Literary
Sometimes there are great books that are almost impossible to review. An example is A Little Life—a novel of abuse that, while it was brilliant, was not for everyone. But, what was not difficult about it was the fact of the abuse—a subject that does not divide or cause unease. Bryn Greenwood ‘s debut novel All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is the opposite of A Little Life in that it is about a subject that does not unite, that, in the strictest sense, cannot be defended. Unlike Yanagihara’s immersive, maximalist prose Greenwood’s is minimalist, written with the barest of sentences that roll across the page with the same smoothness as the fields of the Midwest, where the novel is set. The almost flat affect of her prose is a counterbalance to a story that sends up warning flares as it moves into societal waters that run dark and deep.
It is Wavonna Quinn, the daughter of a meth dealer and a mother who is a mentally unbalanced addict, whose presence fills All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. At age eight she is tiny sprite of a girl who does not speak, does not eat and cannot and should not be touched. Her mother has embedded in her a distrust of words and a fear of germs and bad people. Into this skewed world comes Kellen, a twenty-one-year-old Native American whose only worth in life is his size and brute strength. He is the muscle in her father’s drug ring, but once they meet, he becomes her protector and caregiver. To him, she is the only person who never diminishes or mocks him.
There is the violence that smashes into you and then there is the quiet violence, the two or three words so well placed they leave no doubt as to how bad a situation is. Greenwood writes this way and it hurts with a deep, to-the-bone kind of pain. A filthy house, food given and then thrown away before it can be eaten, a mother who’s either having sex with strangers or won’t get out of bed, having only a man’s undershirt to wear for clothes—Wavy knows all of these things. She also knows all the stars and with the quiet Kellen she can escape her life and lie in a meadow at night and share them with him. For his part, she is something finally worth protecting. He enrolls her in school, takes her there, cooks meals and leaves them in the kitchen at night so she can eat without being seen. What begins as the tender kindness of a young man towards a little girl who’s never received kindness in her life, shifts as they grow older and what feels sweet can’t helped but be replaced with a sense of discomfort. Kellen loves Wavy and he is all she has in an existence with a mother who pours bleach in her mouth to keep her clean. They are throw-aways in a world with gaps so large they’ve both fallen through all their lives and no one noticed.
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things delves into territory we’re conditioned to avoid. We know aspects of Kellen and Wavy’s relationship are wrong, but Greenwood presents a story with such quiet conviction that the definitions of love, age, control, sexuality, and family all waver under the intensity of her prose. She does not shy away from the truth and because of it there are consequences.Through the span of almost twenty years we watch as relationships shift and change, with the protector becoming the protected, old roles discarded and new ones taken on. For some this will not be a book they want to read but, although it made me uncomfortable at some points, I could not let go of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. I became invested in both Wavy and Kellen, two damaged people, thrown away by those who were supposed to care for them and left to care for each other. Throughout the novel there was ugly, but in the telling of their relationship, with Wavy’s determination and drive, Kellen’s commitment, and, most of all, love, it became something wonderful.