I try to review as many titles as my time allows. My desire to be as prolific as I can be means that I have a natural affinity for shorter works… and, conversely, a slight tendency to avoid longer works. It’s thus probably no surprise that I sighed deeply when Brett McBean’s novel The Awakening landed in my mailbox with a resounding thud. Beautifully produced by Tasmaniac Publications in a signed, limited edition (200 copies) hardcover, and featuring striking cover art by Erin Wells and an insightful introduction by Ray Garton, The Awakening weighs in at a hefty 470 pages.
Although Tasmaniac is an Australia-based publisher and McBean is an Australian author, The Awakening is almost completely all-American, with the only exception being a character from Haiti. But more on him in a minute. Operating in a milieu that has to be largely foreign to him, McBean does a remarkably good job rendering small-town USA in this coming-of-age tale. I noticed a small handful of mistakes in language use, but for the most part, McBean nails it.
The story is set in a typical Midwestern town and revolves around 14-year-old Toby Fairchild, his best friend, Frankie, and the object of Toby’s affections, Gloria. Determined to enjoy their last summer before the trials of high school begin, Toby and Frankie are on the cusp of growing up, torn between lingering childhood interests and burgeoning teen obsessions. But summer has barely begun before a traumatic attack destroys their idyll. Toby has no memory of the incident, but he at least finds some solace from the fact that he develops a relationship with Gloria in the wake of the attack.
The other person with whom Toby subsequently develops a bond is the aforementioned non-American – his reclusive neighbor, Mr. Joseph , a Haitian immigrant. As Toby gets to know Mr. Joseph, he learns that the rumors and prejudice surrounding the old man are unfair, while at the same time discovering that the world is a much bigger, and stranger, place than he realized. And, although it sounds cliché, Toby also discovers that monsters are real, but their identity is far different than what he’d supposed.
So what about my initial, at-first-sight impression that this book is too long? Well, even though the story is compelling, and the characters extremely well-developed, the fact remains that precious little happens in the first half of the book, and many dialog-heavy scenes extend beyond what’s really necessary. Although these lengthy scenes do serve to further cement our perceptions of Toby and Frankie, they do so at the price of narrative momentum. Don’t get me wrong – every time I had to set aside The Awakening, I found myself eager to return to the unexpected twists and turns found within its pages. But the book would have been even stronger if there were a few less of those pages.
A final note: unfortunately – although fortunately for the publisher – The Awakening sold out prior to publication, so tracking down a copy may prove problematic.