Theo Byrne is a promising young astrobiologist who has found a way to search for life on other planets dozens of light years away. He is also the widowed father of a most unusual nine-year-old. His son Robin is funny, loving, and filled with plans. He thinks and feels deeply, adores animals, and can spend hours painting elaborate pictures. He is also on the verge of being expelled from third grade, for smashing his friend’s face with a metal thermos.
What can a father do, when the only solution offered to his rare and troubled boy is to put him on psychoactive drugs? What can he say when his boy comes to him wanting an explanation for a world that is clearly in love with its own destruction? The only thing for it is to take the boy to other planets, while all the while fostering his son’s desperate campaign to help save this one.
‘Watching medicine fail my child, I developed a crackpot theory: Life is something we need to stop correcting. My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom. Every one of us is an experiment, and we don’t even know what the experiment is testing.’
I’m going to preface my review by saying that The Overstory by Richard Powers was my wow book for 2019, because I think that may have coloured my expectations going into Bewilderment.
When I think of the story from a bit of distance I think it is fantastic. But when I break it down into components I find myself remembering things that were irking me as I read.
The first thing was the use of italics for Robin’s speech without any use of speech marks. This was quite distracting for me for a short while because I was trying to figure out why only Robin’s dialogue was written this way. Was he dead? Was he a figment of Theo’s imagination? Was Theo remembering past conversations with Robin? And so on. Perhaps I read too many mysteries because until it was clarified that Robin existed and this was just a particular writing quirk employed by the author I was busy speculating on the meaning behind it. This feeling of distraction early on interfered with me bonding with Robin’s character, who was actually a sweet, caring, sensitive soul.
[WARNING: THIS WHOLE PARAGRAPH IS A SPOILER!!!] The second thing, which became a huge issue for me, was the discussion of Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes early in the book. Immediately I knew how the book was going to go. I was hoping the author would at the very least keep things ambiguous until near the end if he was going to follow that route, but he didn’t so I missed out on the elements of anticipation and suspense while reading. If I could change one thing about this entire book it would be that Flowers For Algernon had not been mentioned at all. Yes, those who have read that book would have picked up on the similarity – but not until much, much further on in the book.
The above probably makes it sound as though I didn’t enjoy the book. I did. A lot. I think it was quite brilliantly done. Some of the more scientific nitty gritty went over my head, but I didn’t feel that it was information I needed to be able to enjoy or understand what was happening. I could feel Robin’s bewilderment and frustration over the environmental destruction being wrought on the planet, and Theo’s helplessness to provide Robin with the answers he needed and his despair and fear as he fought to retain control over the management of his son’s condition as he thought best.
It was sad and devastating story, but ultimately left me unmoved.