I’ve been watching Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing with great interest since they opened their virtual doors last year. I’m interested in general in start-up independent small presses because I’ve been-there-done-that, so I can empathize with any growing pains they experience. There’s also the potential for me to learn from them if they strike upon some innovative way to go about things. And I’m interested in PMMP in particular because of the editors’ and my mutual connection with Dark Moon Digest (and…there goes any chance of Amazon letting me post this review there. Again.)

So when they asked if I would like to review their debut title, Cruel by Eli Wilde, I was both flattered and a little nervous to be entrusted with the responsibility. What if I don’t do it justice?

There’s only one way to find out…

The publisher describes Cruel as a “bildungsroman” novel, or coming-of-age story, which is a genre that focuses on the moral and psychological development of the main character as he or she moves from childhood to adulthood. And this definition is both entirely accurate and quite inadequate to describe what you are getting yourself in for with Cruel. One reviewer says, “It leaves the reader with a horrible nothingness”.  Another reviewer uses such adjectives as “soulless”, “remorseless”, “joyless” and “dispiriting”. The same reviewer goes on to say with exquisite understatement, “Cruel may not be for everybody”.

Stay with me here; these are actually all compliments.

Perhaps we should address first who this book is not for. Although Cruel is a relatively slim volume, it is not for readers who want a bit of light diversion or a short distraction, nor is it for lovers of a happy ending. This book will burrow under your skin and stay with you for a long time. Readers need to be confident that they can shake off the feelings of hopelessness and despair that Cruel will induce.

By Jürgen Howaldt (Own work (selbst erstelltes Foto)) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

No actual hedgehogs were harmed in the writing of this book…I hope…

Stephen King says in On Writing that he was deluged with letters protesting his cruelty to animals when he includes a scene in The Dead Zone that has a character kicking a dog to death. He responded to these critics by reminding them that the character was not real, and neither was the dog. If you are the sort of reader who will not contemplate fictional animal cruelty, then Cruel is absolutely, definitively not for you; the book starts a la Dead Zone with Evan Jameson beating his pet dog for a minor infringement and enjoying it, and it gets worse (much, much worse) from there.

But don’t be thinking you’re picking up a novel of torture porn. The cruelty serves essential purposes, to illustrate the environment of casual, Lord-of-the-Flies sadism in which Evan is raised, and as a metaphor for humankind’s propensity to brutalise the weak and defenceless. Still, when I got to these scenes, I had to repeat the mantra, “It’s not real, it’s not real,” in order to keep down my lunch.

And such is the power of Wilde’s prose that he has the reader half-convinced that the story is true, that it is autobiographical (although I most fervently hope not). The earlier sections of the narrative where Evan recalls his childhood are particularly impressive as Wilde nails (pardon the expression) a child’s voice, a child’s innocence and struggle to put disturbing events in context, all filtered through a jaded adult’s perspective and slippery memory. The progression from bewildered child to conflicted teen to self-aware but no less conflicted adult is handled seamlessly.

Evan’s relationship with women is also crucial. It seems that all the significant female characters in Cruel, starting with his mother, are the main source of his fleeting moments of happiness. They hold the key to his redemption, yet never turn it in the lock, and could arguably be the cruellest of all for failing to love him enough.

Cruel is by no means an easy or a pleasant read, but it is a worthwhile read. The prose is lean, precise and accessible and will carry you along in spite of the horrors you will see on your journey, but the themes are painful to contemplate.

Which is precisely why you should contemplate them.

(The standard disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of “Cruel” from the publisher for review purposes.)

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