The Wicker King - K. Ancrum

The Wicker King is a psychological young adult thriller that follows two friends struggling as one spirals into madness.

When August learns that his best friend, Jack, shows signs of degenerative hallucinatory disorder, he is determined to help Jack cope. Jack’s vivid and long-term visions take the form of an elaborate fantasy world layered over our own—a world ruled by the Wicker King. As Jack leads them on a quest to fulfill a dark prophecy in this alternate world, even August begins to question what is real or not.

August and Jack struggle to keep afloat as they teeter between fantasy and their own emotions. In the end, each must choose his own truth.

This book is another fantastic addition to the sub-genre of mindfuck fiction for young adults. While this is not an official marketing term (I don't know that it would go over well with schools or libraries) it is one that nevertheless perfectly encapsulates this style in the best possible way. Other similar titles I've reviewed include My Sister Rosa, The Lonely, Complicit, Replica, and the upcoming Genuine Fraud (review to come). I use this term with the utmost respect for the work of authors who are able to truly stretch imaginations and also cause us to emotionally disconnect from ourselves in some way. I think it's truly amazing.

The Wicker King is probably one of the queerest novels I've read this year, which is saying something considering that I'm on the Rainbow List and have been reading mostly LGBTQ books all year so far! What I think is truly unique about the text is that although there is really no explicit discussion of gay identity amongst the protagonists, August and Jack, their relationship is far beyond any typical male/male friendship bond. Every tough that is witnessed by the reader is emotionally charged and is likely to give the impression of a physical, if not entirely sexual connection (I'm including a few examples below, but not here, in case you don't want spoilers.)

The messiness of the novel also drew me in. There is no clean way of dealing with mental illness or hallucinations (if that's what they are). August wants to help Jack, but he doesn't trust adults (no wonder since his mother is entirely oblivious to everything that is happening in August's life), and the twins whose mother is a psychologist, are pushy and not exactly trustworthy in the ways that they approach both Jack and August to get help. But is August doing what is best for Jack? Or for himself? And what about if Jack is "cured"? What will that mean for August, who feels responsible for the Wicker King, as his knight in shining armour (at least, according to Jack's description.)

Ancrum's writing is beautiful. The back cover copy describes the style as micro-fiction. I suppose that works. I would call it vignettes. Either way, the novel is not told in any sort of linear or fully constructed fashion, but rather in small stories of no more than a few pages. As the novel moves forward, there is more smudging evident on the pages, and doodles. There are photos and legal forms and detention slips all dispersed throughout the narrative that add another layer of complexity and make the reader wonder what is real and what is not.

I got the end of the book, put it down, and Tweeted: "I don't know what I just read?!?" I hope this is how you feel too. And I hope it makes you wonder and question and feel unsure. I hope you can't get Jack and August out of your head. I hope you think hard about everything. I know some of you out there will read this and think, "Why did he tell me to read this?!" I do not apologize.

Recommended

(NOTE: This review is from an Advance Reading Copy - Out Oct. 2017)


* "When [Gordie] pulled him back roughly by his hair, August gasped, arching off the floor.
   She wasn't allowed to do that. No one did that except him [Jack]. He reached up a hand to pull her arm off him, but she swiveled her hips and it was too late.
   He fell. Groaning. Thinking of chapped lips, strong arms, and freckles."

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