Review: The Waking Dark

The Waking Dark by Robin Wasserman. Knopf. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: One day, a small town: Oleander, Kansas. Like so many other small towns, where everyone thinks they know everyone. Where everyone has secrets. Some secrets they don’t even know about.

A handful of people, with no connections to each other, go on murder sprees. Each murder ends in a suicide; or, in the case of one person, an attempted suicide. There are five survivors, who have to live with the horror they saw. Or, in the case of one, the horror they inflicted.

One year later, just as the town looks like it has recovered, or, at least, forgotten, a series of tornadoes descends. In the chaos that follows, the town is quarantined, sealed off from the outside world.

How much can one town take?

The darkness and horror has barely begun.

The Good: I loved this book so, so much!

I’m not the first to say “Stephen King” when describing The Waking Dark. First, because of the horror: The first chapter starts out with murder after murder, with people of all ages being killed by their neighbors and friends for no reason. And here’s the thing: these murders are not what make The Waking Dark horror. Rather, the horror is the worse that will come. It’s what people will do and will think. Neighbor turns on neighbor, and it soon likes almost as if the people who died the year before were the lucky ones.

Why did these handful of people become killers? The answer may be hidden in the history of the town, or it may be something else. After the tornadoes destroy part of the town, it’s not just the phones and Internet not working, it’s the military blockades around the town preventing anyone from leaving, or entering. Is it the isolation that makes those in the town of Oleander turn on each other? Or is it something more? Is the reason behind the destruction of Oleander and its people supernatural? Scientific in origin? Or something else entirely?

Second, because of the setting: a small town, who, even before the murders and tornadoes, was dying. Dying because of the loss of work, dying because of the rise of meth and drug use, dying because of just the general meanness of people. The portrait of Oleander, and those who live there, is sad and specific and full; Wasserman, like King, has created a world that appears to really exist. I’m sure that somewhere, Oleander is on a map and its inhabitants are flesh and blood.

There are five narratives running through The Waking Dark, overlapping and entwining upon occasion. Daniel Ghent, whose normal life ended years ago with the death of his mother and her father’s losing touch with reality. Julie Prevette, whose trailer trash family is notorious for their violence and crimes and meth. Ellie King, a Christian girl who needs to believe in God. Jeremiah West, high school football player and all around popular kid. And, finally, Cassandra Porter, who doesn’t remember what she did in the baby nursery but who is paying for it now.

Here is an early scene with Daniel: “Daniel flipped through the wrinkled page [of the comic book], past caped heroes who never arrived too late and punches that never left a bruise. He couldn’t remember ever being young enough to believe in that kind of world; he didn’t want to imagine his little brother ever being old enough to stop.” It tells so much about Daniel, and his life, and his childhood, and his brother, and their relationship, in just a handful of words.

Five people do not a town make. The Waking Dark includes many other characters, and this is another area where Wasserman is like King, because even with a few lines and a handful of scenes, she creates memorable, believable characters.

This is not a book about good-hearted people pulling together. When things go back in Oleander, they go really, really bad. What happens when people let the darkness in their heart out? When the meanness that you keep in check to be polite doesn’t have to be kept in check anymore?

The Waking Dark is also not about a handful of strangers banding together to fight back. The main characters know each other the way that teens in a small town would know each other. It takes a while for the five main characters to connect in a more meaningful way, and since all five are teenagers, for most part, they are without any real power to fight anything. This is a town where, within less than two weeks of the quarantine, people believe that a public execution by fire is a good thing. What can teens do to fight that? Not much; they best they can hope for is escape.

Towards the end, there is a line, almost a throwaway — “They had all deserved better.

And this is perhaps the true genius of The Waking Dark, and why this is horror. Because, yes, these five deserve better. But so does everyone in Oleander, whether they’re the young girl whose baby brother was murdered, destroying her family, or the local meth dealer who loves and wants to protect his niece. They all deserve better. We all deserve better than what life gives us: but that’s life. What happens, happens, and is neither punishment nor reward. Life doesn’t care what we deserve. It doesn’t care in Oleander, and it doesn’t care outside Oleander.

One last thing: Oleander is quarantined. And here is another example of why I love The Waking Dark. Even before the military closed the town off, it was a town that trapped people. Using teens as the main characters underscores how trapped people are: make someone a high school graduate and a reader may say, “oh they can always leave,” ignoring the ties of blood and family and friendship, ignoring that leaving a place, any place, requires someplace new to go and the resources to get there. And, not to give too much away about the ending, just because one is stuck somewhere doesn’t mean that isn’t home.

By this point, I’m sure you’ve all figured out that this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

The only thing I’d like to add is the diversity that Wasserman includes in The Waking Dark. One character is part Hispanic; another is gay.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Librarian of Snark; Rachel’s Reading Timbits; and author interview at Entertainment Weekly.


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