Have you ever picked up a novel that at first grabbed your attention but about halfway through you began to doubt your decision making abilities and upon finishing, thought, “What the hell did I just read?” I bet you have.
This happened to me earlier this summer. I found a book through Amazon’s Prime Reader program. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program it’s Amazon’s version of a lending library, comprised mostly of first time authors with a few notable authors thrown in just to make the first timers feel like they are in good company.
I picked out Richard J. O’Brien’s The Garden of Fragile Things based on reviews I read on Amazon and Goodreads. The novel is billed as “A dark fantasy in the tradition of Stephen King’s It, and Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life.
From the book:
In the late 1970s, Joe Godwin was just twelve years old, living in a working-class neighborhood. Plagued by bullies and a volatile home life (turns out, not so much), Joe spends his time with his friends in search of adventures. The discovery of an abandoned mansion during a camping trip in a state forest sets up a series of consequences in motion between the boys, inhabitants of the mansion, and the others who occupy the garden behind the colossal home.
Having enjoyed both of these, I thought, “Why not?”I spent a rare quiet day the book. What a waste of time! There’s a day I won’t get back. It’s not just that the book is bad, we’ve all picked up bad books now and again, or at least books that we personally consider bad. The main problem with this book is that it reads as if an actual twelve-year-old boy wrote it; one who has no understanding of just how vital plot and story continuity is to fiction.
Some of the characters in this novel act, well, out of character. Take Joe’s mom. She tries to forbid him from joining his friends when they go out to “trick or treating” on Halloween citing all the bad things that could happen to him, yet does not stop him from running out of the house and down the street in a rage upon hearing about the murder of a friend. His parents never bother to go looking for him. A sympathetic cop brings him home. In fact, there are several instances of cops bringing this kid home for minor infractions yet he’s never punished. I never did understand why the jacket talks about a “volatile home life.”
Early in the novel the reader is led to believe that some of the grownups know about the odds things to come and are getting ready to stop some type of evil force lurking just outside of town but this is never fleshed out, and is dropped from all mention by the middle of the book.
We are introduced to the standard teen bully; at least at first he is modeled on the archetype bully, but over time becomes a rapist when he forces a gay middle school boy to perform a sex act, and then becomes a murder suspect. We are given no explanation as to his motives, or shown proof of guilt. The reader is told after the fact about his disappearance and imprisonment for murder. This had me wondering why he was in the novel in the first place. His inclusion did nothing to move the story along. There would be no effect to the story if his and the character he murdered were removed from the novel completely. Now, it is possible that O’Brien was trying to create several red herrings in order to keep his readers guessing as to what kind of evil was to come, but in his inept hands the herrings felt more like dead ends in the maze of a poorly constructed plot line.
Some of the issues I had with the novel can be blamed on poor editing by O’Brien’s publisher. Half way through the novel a character’s name is changed, and then changed back. One chapter ending has Joe and his friends setting up a campsite, the next chapter starts with them getting to the campsite. But given so many inconsistencies in the over all story line these errors only added to the poor quality of the read.
Before we get to the worst part of this book, we have to go back to the beginning and plot setup of the novel. I will try not to spoil too much (though I do not recommend reading this book) but as a warning, there will be a little spoiled ink in the coming paragraphs.
The book begins with a reporter looking to interview a 44-year-old man who is a patient of a mental hospital. The patient was tried and convicted of the murder of his three childhood friends in the summer of 77. This man is none other than Joe Godwin. The reporter is not so much interested in these particular murders, but in the disappearance of 30 children between 1865 and 1963 (keep this number in mind, we will get back to it). The reporter thinks that Joe “may have been exposed to certain anomalies in Franklin Forst, the very same anomalies that may have lent themselves to the unexplained disappearance of more than two dozen children over the past century and the half” (p1).
The reporter is denied the interview, yet inexplicably is mailed a manuscript penned by Joe relating the events that led to his incarceration. So no interview but is allowed to read Joe’s story? Why? This is never explained.
The main plot of the novel centers on a mysterious trail that leads to a typical creepy house in the woods. The boys stumble upon the trail and house while camping in a local state forest. For boys who are not good at camping, they seem to do it a lot in this story. As the boys try to work out the mysterious trail and its otherworldly guardians things go from bad to worse. Almost every Lovecraftian type of monster you can imagine lives in and around the house, as if the author was vying for the “Most use of Lovecraft” award. The climax of the book is a gore fest of death for Joe’s friends. He alone manages to escape after setting fire to the house.
It was jarring enough to read about the gruesome deaths of young boys but what set me over the top was how Joe ended up being tried for the murders. “They all stared at me for a long time without saying a word. They didn’t have to. It was evident by their expressions that they all believed I was guilty for setting what would go down in Yorkville history as one of the biggest fires in Franklin County” (p218). This group that was staring at Joe included his mother and father who never asked Joe what had happened. All assumed his friends were dead because they did not make it out of the woods.
Everyone including psychiatrists agreed upon hearing Joe’s story about the evil house and monsters that Joe’s mind “was fractured beyond repair, a butcher who harbored no respect for human life”(219). On the surface who could blame them? After all stories about evil monsters and friendly warning gnomes is farfetched. There would be no way for Joe to prove his innocents, right? Wel…
Joe pleaded with his parents and the authorities to allow him to show them the burned out house where the carnage took place but they ignored him. “Somewhere out there in the forest, trapped perhaps in some borderland between the world we know and another world ruled by chaotic, primal forces were two of my friends”(p219).
Wait, what?? The authorities had nothing tying Joe to murder yet refused to search for two of the bodies? Then how the hell do they know the boys were really dead? Given this information why didn’t it occur to anyone to think about the possibility that the boys were in hiding because of the forest fire? Again, no one went up and recovered the bodies?
How was Joe convicted of their deaths if their bodies were never recovered? Why would a perfectly normal kid who had no previous signs of mental illness decide to become a mass murder? Seriously, the cops never went looking for the bodies? Their parents never demanded it? Nope. Joe is thrown into a mental hospital for life even though there is no proof tying him to a murder weapon or of missing dead bodies.
I tried giving the author the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps somewhere hidden in his passages were signs that Joe may have been an unreliable narrator and was in fact insane and not only made up the story about the house, but was also responsible for the earlier teen death. But there is nothing that hints at this twist. Remember in the beginning we are told that a reporter finds the disappearance of local children odd. And early on in the book several old men talked about the impending horror.
If O’Brien wanted to, he could have had the bodies brought to the morgue and shown that they were in fact murdered at the hands of Joe. That would have made more sense and made for a rather creepy but satisfying read. But no. Joe is carted off to a mental hospital based on his story alone.
Who writes such a slapdash ending like this, other than a 12 year-old boy who has yet to master a tightly woven story line? Would you believe a teacher of creative writing is responsible for this mess?
By now you may be wondering why I’m bothering to review a bad book. We all know they are out there, and most of us who write reviews don’t bother to waste our time on them. But given that a creating writing college instructor wrote this mess, I could not help but be irritated! Is this the level of teaching that goes on in our college creative writing classes? Is this what writing student are being taught? No wonder there are so many bad books of late. How can O’Brien possibly teach creative writing when his own is so poorly constructed and executed? I cannot express my dismay enough at this level of writing by a college instructor.
O’Brian should not be anywhere near a classroom unless he is a student.