Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book Review: Wonder by RJ Palacio


“I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”

Unless you’ve got a strong aversion to book shops and/or libraries, and if you have then why on earth are you even reading this blog, chances are you’ll have heard of RJ Palacio’s Wonder. It’s almost as likely that you’ll be familiar with the quote above as well. Yes, Wonder is the story of a ten year old boy, August Pullman, with a severely disfigured face. Up until now he’s been sheltered and home schooled by his loving parents, and fiercely protected by his older sister Via. But now he’s being sent to school proper, thus opening himself up to the real world and the harsh realities endured by those forever destined to not fit in.

In many ways, Wonder is a commendable novel. The human brain and society program us to deem certain forms more aesthetically pleasing than others. This is why the themes of books like Wonder are important in getting us to reassess those values. As far as the story itself goes, the best thing for me is that August’s story isn’t told solely from his perspective. If it had been, it could very easily have become a solipsistic misery memoir, but in examining the impact August has on those around him, Palacio deftly makes the point that it’s not only the disfigured themselves on the emotional rollercoaster. The first person narrative is also easy to read, and the characters are well-rounded and not mere vessels for Palacio’s ‘message’, making for a compelling enough tale.

For me, though, Wonder is a good (very good even) but not a great novel. There’s nothing wrong with it not being the first story to deal with this particular issue, but it doesn’t fly so high that it transcends genre considerations and claim itself to be the best book you’ll read this year. The writing style, whilst it flows well, is more competent than outstanding. In fact, another of its strengths is a weakness at the same time, unfortunately: a couple of the narrative voices ring a bit false, or just don’t work as well as some of the stronger ones. Finally, without wanting to give anything away, a lot of what you think is going to happen in the course of the story does happen. The ending, in particular, is crashingly predictable. But even though you’ll see it coming from a mile off, you’ll probably have a tear in your eye all the same…

This is a book written with the noblest of intentions, and its appeal looks set to be enormous: authors as diverse as Malorie Blackman and Nicholas Sparkes have sung its praises. But I find myself finding it powerful, uplifting and narratively clever, yet frustrating, occasionally flat and a bit obvious at the same time. It’s these odd paradoxes that arguably make Palacio’s laudable but flawed book something of a ‘wonder’ in itself.

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