"The Awakening" Book Review
Written by Shane D. Keene
Published by Bloodshot Books
Written by Brett McBean
2016, 485 pages, Fiction
Released on July 26th, 2016
As a reader of mostly darker fiction and poetry, I'd say that coming-of-age stories are among my favorite subgenres and, when written well, are extremely satisfying. But the bar on such tales was set incredibly high early on in my reading history by such iconic authors as Dan Simmons, Robert R. McCammon, and Stephen King. So when it comes to relative newcomers, I have a tendency to read with a skeptical, possibly even hyper-critical eye. It's difficult to live up to those astronomical standards and it takes a brave author to even make the attempt. That said, 2016 has been a fantastic year for horror fiction and some exceptionally brilliant stars have risen to the top of the heap, with books such as Jonathan Janz's Children of the Dark, and Stephen Graham Jones' Mongrels garnering much attention and well deserved accolades. Now Brett McBean, a young Australian author whose name became known pretty quickly with the release of his novel The Invasion, throws his own brainchild into the mix with The Awakening.
The Awakening is a tale about one long pain and horror filled summer in the life of Toby Fairchild, his best friend Frankie, and his first love, Gloria, a story that becomes enmeshed with that of Mr. Jacob, the requisite creepy recluse that all small towns in America are required to have. But he's not just your average strange hermit that all the kids make fun of. Sure he's all of those things but he's also something more, or less depending on your outlook, because the old man has been dead for ninety years. A zombi in the Haitian sense of the word, he's long since fled his native country, living in various towns across the decades, hiding his secret while he waits for a certain event to occur so he can finally end his existence. When tragedy strikes the small town, centered directly on Toby and affecting his life in profound and terrible ways, he finds himself befriending the man that everyone in town despises, shuns, and even fears to some degree.
The first thing that becomes clear when you start reading McBean's work, aside from the fact that he has an engaging voice, is his obvious mastery of character development. Really it's what makes the whole thing work. When all is said and done, The Awakening is all about the people and the narrative would fall flat without the extensive backstory that the author builds so masterfully. Toby and Frankie talk, think, and act like real American teenagers with all their flaws and foibles, and the knowledge of what makes them who they are helps the reader to feel for them as they make their way through this achingly human tale of friendship, love, and terror in the heartland of America. The book is an emotionally charged heartbreaker that you're going to want to bring a box of Kleenex to because you'll likely shed a tear or forty, and you should also block out a large chunk of time. Once you start reading it you won't to want to put it down.
A long, slow burn of a novel, The Awakening doesn't really take off until about halfway through the book. McBean takes his time constructing the foundations of this nearly four hundred page tome and the true action, suspense, and frequent bursts of terror are slow in coming. But that longer than average buildup is far from detrimental. Brett McBean's authorial voice is so engaging, his characters and idyllic small town setting so endearing you become captivated almost from the first sentence and it's only in retrospect that you're likely to realize that it took such a great length of time to get going. And when it does finally get going, there is no letup. The story crackles with tension, the pace gradually but steadily increasing like the beat of a tribal war drum until you suddenly and unexpectedly find yourself at the poignantly sad but gratifying conclusion.
The Awakening demonstrates storytelling finesse on par with some of the best in the business and, while McBean has been compared with Stephen King by many, it's really not a fair or accurate representation. Stylistically speaking, the gap between his and King's work is a pretty far jump. Brett is doing his own thing and making unique inroads with traditional fiction, and he's a talented and promising author with a hopefully long and successful career in front of him. This is the first work I've read by him but it certainly won't be my last. It's the type of engrossing coming-of-age story that's custom made for a great summer escape and Bloodshot Books couldn't have chosen a better book to kick off their Second Sights series of reboots.