Review: Strange Creatures – Phoebe North
Genre: Contemporary (with magical elements)
Published: Balzer & Bray, June 2021
My Rating: 5/5 stars
From the dictionary of obscure sorrows: nodus tollens - n. the realization that the plot of your life doesn't make sense to you anymore.
What do you do when the story of your life no longer makes sense? Or if the reality of that story is too dark to accept at that time? You create a new story of your own… This idea is at the core of Phoebe Norths deeply personal and hardhitting new novel Strange Creatures.
We follow the story of Jamie and Annie, an inseparable pair of siblings; basically twins except for their date of birth. Alike in almost every way, they promised to always take care of each other while facing the challenges of growing up different in suburban America. And when life became too much for them, they’d escape into their own space their house. A place they called Gumlea, where fantasy and reality merge together, and where nobody could find them.
Until Jamie disappears, and Annie is left behind… Unable to process any other faith for her brother, Annie becomes convinced that Jamie has escaped into Gumlea one final time, and she will do anything to follow him there, and bring him back. Told from three separate perspectives, we witness the fallout of a tragedy on a family, friends and a small town community; from the harsh reality of growing up, to the stories we tell ourselves to keep going…
I honestly wish I had a more eloquent way of putting this, but Strange Creatures is fucking brilliant. It's a deeply personal and honest depiction of childhood trauma, grief, paracosm and the cost of an almost symbiotic relationship between a brother and sister. It's also a version of the story I've been looking for for years, so it struck a personal chord with me...
"Personal", not just in the sense that it spoke to me, but also in that it feels very personally connected to the author. Without knowing anything about the background of the author, this story, these characters and the depiction of their grief feel too real not to have been lived. It doesn't read like a story written for fun or for money, rather like a story that screamed to be told... Fortunately, it was in capable hands: With their stunning prose and remarkable (sometimes unconventional) storytelling, North created an incredibly nuanced and compassionate portrait of an adolescents mind, and the journey onwards from trauma. It's an emotional roller coaster, but with a beautiful catharsis at the end. If that's what you're looking for, I can't recommend it highy enough, and I deeply hope this masterpiece finds its audience.
I’ve seen people who haven’t read it call it a “portal fantasy” or compare this to more adventure-based stories. I don’t think that’s the right impression or expectation going into this book. This is really more of a hard-hitting contemporary with light fantasy elements, and I’d say it’s appropriate for the upper end of YA, or adult audiences. If I had to compare it to anything it’s more like The Ocean at the End of the Lane (in the sense that it’s a depiction of the blurry lines between reality and fantasy in an adolescent mind, when faced with trauma) than anything else. To those asking: I hope that helps a little in deciding if this is the book for you…
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