To me, the “what if” of a novel is often more important than the genre. It’s the central thought around which a story is built. What if there really is a monster hiding in the closet? What if even the nicest, most well-adjusted person is just one phenomenally bad day away from becoming a psychopath?
In the same way specific genres might appeal to us, I find myself especially drawn to the same “what ifs” over and over again. If I crack open a novel and find the author exploring a question on my short list, he or she is already half-way to offering me a great read. One of my favorites?
What if reality isn’t even close to being the objective common ground we think it is?
Howells’s novel begins with a seventeen-year-old girl named Lycia waking up in the town of Greenwood. It’s a place like no other: dark, twisted and cursed with the kind of weather that makes Seattle seem downright arid. Her mother is comatose and the only other inhabitants of the town are children–all identical Barbie and Ken doll lookalikes–capable of hideous cruelty. As Lycia explores the town further, she finds only two other children like her and learns Greenwood exists in its own inescapable dimension, completely cut off from a “real” world she only half-remembers.
Howells dives into Greenwood on page one and leaves the reader feeling as off-balance as the main character, a delicious device if the author can pull it off and Howells uses it well. It’s a novel that’s equal parts action and mystery, which keeps the story moving even as it explores human nature and the nature of reality itself. And as the violence escalates to horrific levels, we’re made to experience all the dread and terror that birthed the town of Greenwood in the first place.
Overall I found the story exciting and the world thought-provoking. The characters themselves are also interesting, though there were a few times when I thought the characters’ actions weren’t entirely realistic.
For example, and maybe it’s just me, but if I woke up trapped in a town filled with unpredictable and violent teenagers, I’m pretty sure my first order of business would be to find a weapon more effective than a snide remark.
But even though the characters acted a little off from time to time, their motivations and emotions were complex enough for them to rise well above the level of cardboard cutouts. I’ve written many times about how a great character or cast of characters is what makes or breaks a story for me, and in How to Disappear Completely, Howells had me caring about them early on.
Even if they should have armed themselves to the teeth by page thirty.