“I feel like a lamb being led to the slaughter.”
She laughed. “You’re funny.”
She nodded. “You remember that thing Lord Summerisle says at the end of The Wicker Man?”
Arman shook his head. He had no idea what she was talking about. “That’s a movie, right? I never saw it. What does he say?”
Kira grinned her Cheshire grin again. “Reverence the sacrifice.”
—The Smaller Evil, by Stephanie Kuehn
17-year-old Arman’s life is a disaster, and he’s pretty sure that most of his problems—scholastic, social, familial—are his own fault. In interacting with the world, he questions and second-guesses his own decisions and behavior and even his perception to such a degree that he’s often in a state of self-paralysis. He’s aware that his anxiety and his short attention span compound these issues, so he’s careful to always take his meds, but every day is still a struggle.
When he meets Beau, a charismatic man who runs a secluded retreat in the California hills, he decides to go all-in—even stealing almost $3,000 from his meth-dealer stepfather for tuition—in a last-ditch effort to change his life:
Autonomy and joy were scarce in his daily existence, only he’d never understood why. But now he had the answer: A disease was responsible. Social order sickness, Beau called it, or the hierarchical flu—both were the terms he used interchangeably to describe the sort of cultural syndrome that needed him to be weak in order for it to be strong.
Once there, it isn’t long before he starts to have second thoughts, but he isn’t sure if he can trust himself—after all, he lives with constant self-doubt, so it’s possible that he’s engaging in self-sabotage, too, right? But when he’s the only witness to what looks like a suicide—or could it have been murder?—no one at the retreat believes him, due largely to the fact that there’s no body, but also because of his unexplained head injury… and so, of course, he begins to doubt himself.
My apologies for such a lot of synopsis—given that the book is only about 250 pages long, what I laid out might seem excessive, but I promise that it really is the bare-bones version!
As I’ve come to expect from a Kuehn book, The Smaller Evil is beautifully written; it’s full of emotional depth and atmosphere; it has a clear confidence in the reader’s ability to make connections, to intuit, to comprehend, to understand. It’ll be a good pick for readers who like cerebral thrillers: stories in which the mysteries are less focused on physical clues and car chases—though there is plenty of running around—and more on the mysteries within the minds and souls of the characters.
The Smaller Evil is largely about wrestling with regret, and about learning to separate other peoples’ disappointments from your own—it’s about looking back, rather than about looking forward. Which is exactly why this book feels like a better fit for the adult market, rather than YA.
YA isn’t about the age of the protagonist, it’s about viewpoint and perspective and experience, and in The Smaller Evil, all of those things read far more middle-aged than teen. Arman’s time at the retreat is framed by passages clearly written from an adult viewpoint—it isn’t revealed until the end who that adult is—which create distance from Arman’s story, both in terms of immediacy and perspective. The arc about Arman’s father is just as much about Beau—if not more—than it is about Arman himself, and the majority of the tension in the book is about the interactions between the adult characters, not the teens. Even the literary/film references—Iain Banks’ Espedair Street, Evelyn Piper’s Bunny Lake is Missing, The Wicker Man—are all from the adult world.
I’ve sworn multiple times to never get involved in yet another interminable debate about WHAT YA IS, but I won’t be at all surprised to see one inspired by this book—even if I don’t wade in, I’ll be all ears. I’m hugely interested to see how actual YAs react to it.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.