Title: All The Ugly And Wonderful Things
Author: Bryn Greenwood
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
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All The Ugly and Wonderful Things is a book that hooks you in, creeps under your skin, and refuses to let go. Written with a poetic and quiet intensity, the characters of this novel will haunt your thoughts long after the last pages are turned. The book effortlessly provokes a reaction: whether it’s one of disgust or of sympathy. Yet, the emotions never feel manufactured or disingenuous despite the controversial nature of the book’s themes.
“I liked learning things. How numbers worked together to explain the stars. How molecules made the world. All the ugly and wonderful things people had done in the last two thousand years.”
“That’s not the only thing love means. You just got your mind in the gutter.”
Wavy is a girl who grew up without love, told by her own mother that she’s dirty and repulsive. At the beginning of the book, we meet Wavy at the tender age of five, already irreversibly damaged by her psychological and physical abuse. She does not speak, does not allow people to touch her, and is physically unable to eat in front of others. As expected, Wavy has an inherent distrust for the adults she encounters – until she meets Kellen. Kellen, despite being a con man and labelled a ‘fat slob’, is the exception. He’s able to get through her walls and connect with Wavy in a way even her younger brother and grandmother (the other two significant people in Wavy’s life) could not.
“Odd couple that they were, they had a real connection. Then he tugged her boot off and kissed the bottom of her bare foot. I could see him doing that kind of thing to his own kid, but she wasn’t. She was somebody else’s little girl.”
The plot is classic lonely girl meets lonely boy – yet it’s turned on its head by the huge age gap between the two characters. Wavy meets 24 years-old Kellen when she is just 8 years-old. It’s a gap that seems morally unbreakable, although Kellen signifies safety and belonging to Wavy, two concepts that were completely alien to both of them prior to their meeting. Their relationship is a way for them to find their own comfort and identity in the midst of their awful world. Yet, physically, Wavy and Kellen could not be more mismatched: the text reminds us time and again of Wavy’s waif-like appearance, in contrast to Kellen’s huge form and beer belly. Wavy and Kellen’s bond is no fairy tale romance– it’s messy, fraught with emotional baggage and trauma from their environment.
This book is a remarkable example of the classic writing advice: ‘show, don’t tell’. The reader is never left with a biased viewpoint of our protagonists. Instead, we view Wavy and Kellen’s relationship from a multitude of characters – some recurring, some present for barely half a chapter. The book never presume to tell its audience how to feel about the relationship between Wavy and Kellen. I was allowed to be disturbed as much as I was allowed to be moved. To the very end, I still cannot condone all of Kellen’s actions, both he and Wavy remains extremely flawed. There’s no glorifying of tragedy or romanticising of any circumstances. Bryn Greenwood’s writing unflinchingly explores the ugly places, whether it’s base desires or unpleasant physical descriptors. It’s uncomfortable, it’s confronting, and it will make you question your own moral compass and societal values a thousand times over.
“You can look up the word keening in the dictionary, but you don’t know what it means until you hear somebody having her heart ripped out.”
I can’t quite believe this is Bryn Greenwood’s debut novel, her writing is polished yet evocative. Despite the limited vocabulary of some of her point of view characters, she manages to write some achingly beautiful paragraphs – which just goes to show that SAT words are not everything. The book is captivating, it absorbed and wholly absorbed me until the very end. Although I have only read this one book, I can already tell her stuff will go onto my auto-buy list because this sort of writing is what I live for.
As promised by the title of the novel, the story within is features events that will trigger revulsion – but not necessarily in the manner you would expect. Personally, it was the society around Wavy and Kellen that made me feel the most disgust. It’s a novel completely removed from the white fence, suburban homes – hence, it’s a story that’s completely distant from my own experiences. Its content are at once brutal and beautiful, and it will leave me reflecting and conflicted on the nature of humanity for a long while.
This book does come with a long list of triggers, so please note these before deciding whether you want to read it. Trigger Warnings: child abuse, domestic abuse, implied sexual abuse, drug use, alcoholism, eating disorder.
I am very curious on the thoughts everyone will have upon completing this book, so if you have read it, please come discuss it with me below!