Title: The Wicker King
Author: K. Ancrum
Publication: October 31st 2017 by Imprint
Source: Author (thank you so much, Kayla!)
Genre: Fiction—Psychological Thriller, Realistic
Other classifications: Depression and Mental Illness, LGBTQIA, Young Adult
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.
I received a review copy from the author which in no way swayed my opinion about the work.
Ancrum examines love, friendship, and mental illness in her debut The Wicker King—a quiet, dark, and beautiful novel told in vignettes.
It’s 2003. August Bateman, a poor boy of mixed race, tries to earn extra money by running drugs in their high school. Jack Rossi, a popular, light-haired varsity rugby player, seems to enjoy a perfect life. The two are so far apart on the social spectrum that it shouldn’t make sense for them to be friends and yet they are. In fact, they know each other better than anyone knows anyone. So when Jack starts showing signs of degenerative hallucinatory disorder, August comes to his aid, determined and inclined to do anything. But can two boys keep each other from spiraling into madness? This is at the core of Ancrum’s work. This sense of responsibility one imposes upon himself to save and protect someone. And the author does a remarkable job of writing in this raw, muted, and haunting style, of exploring what it means to be a friend, to love someone so fiercely, and to be young and believe you’ve got everything under control but at the same scared that something will go wrong.
“They were only seventeen. The world was so big and they were very small and there was no one around to stop terrible things from happening.”
In her website, Ancrum described the type of kids she writes about as “complex and beautiful and interesting and passionate” but “frightening.” And I think that’s such a spot on observation of her own writing because what’s really striking about The Wicker King, for me at least, is how nuanced August is and how complex his relationship with Jack is. There certainly were scenes where I wanted to simultaneously hug August and punch him in the face. And there were parts where I longed to care for him, to take him as far away from his home of parental neglect as possible. But it wasn’t just him. I spent half the book rooting for Jack to be okay, for things to work out in the end, but also wanting to shake him. For all the terrible decisions. For all the twisted ways they treated each other. And then there were those quieter moments where a secondary character did a random act of kindness and I was left tearing up. Clearly, I was very emotionally invested in this narrative.
“I am doing this for you. Not the Wicker King. Not what we have become. But for you. If anything goes wrong, I want you to remember that.”
Another central theme of the novel—one I wasn’t expecting but turned out to be so embedded in the story—is codependency. I’m lucky to have never had any personal experience with serious mental health issues, but I think it’s worth noting that the manner with which the author addressed such an important conversation was thoughtful and brave. I won’t go into details lest I give away too much, but August and Jack’s friendship is intense, underscored by hunger and a distorted sense of duty, and not once did Ancrum shy away from that.
“They were stronger together; they were always stronger together.”
There’s the technical aspect, to boot. The story unfolds in these extremely short chapters, which I absolutely adore. Although, I can see how this fragmented style might not be for everyone. The writing is gorgeous. There were passages (“like a secondhand kiss on a breath of ash”) where I was silently sobbing but also thinking, that is a beautiful line. It’s wistful, eerie and poignant. And then there are the police reports, photographs, and notes and the color of the pages gradually darkens until the last act plays out and it’s white type on black. A brilliant metaphor for the overall tone and trajectory of the book.
The Wicker King is without a doubt one of the best titles I read in 2017 and I strongly recommend it, especially for people who are always on the look out for something different to read.
K. Ancrum grew up in Chicago Illinois. She attended Dominican University to study Fashion Merchandizing, but was lured into getting an English degree after spending too many nights experimenting with hard literary criticism and hanging out with unsavory types, like poetry students. Currently, she lives in Andersonville and writes books at work when no one is looking.
Are you going to be picking up Jack and August’s story anytime soon?
How can you not? Have I convinced you to? What are some of your favorite quiet YAs? Or novels in verses? Sound off in the comments below!