We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory
Five survivors of supernatural trauma are coerced by their psychiatrist into joining a unique support group. If the premise of monster therapy sounds interesting to you, read on. Harrison is a twenty-something ex-monster hunter who’s less devil-may-care than he initially appears. Stan is an amputee from cannibalism, who’s in love with being a victim. Barbara encountered the mysterious Scrimshander, who carved something into her literal bones. Martin is an RPG obsessed guy who begins seeing Dwellers, creatures from the other side, and Greta is…well, she’s a girl with a secret, and initially seems like the key to why they’re all gathered together. The book is an extended character study on the trauma the Last Boy or Last Girl that defeats or survives the monsters undergoes. To be a hero means being a survivor, with all the PTSD that entails.
The styling of each chapter changes subtly to match each of the character’s personalities. Harrison’s chapters are sharper, more to the point; Barbara’s sections are more lyrical. Stan is annoying, but this is intentional. Martin’s reveal starts out a bit lame, but it’s turned into something deeper, and it’s after Martin’s reveal that I really began to trust this book, believe in its story. The book does start out tedious, but it begins to pay off. At first, Greta is used as more of a plot device than an actual character, but this changes as well; no character in this book is used solely for their backstory. Rather, the backstories build to enhance the relationships between the various characters, including the psychiatrist, Jan. It’s not a superhero team up, so don’t go into this book expecting that, but the character’s relate in ways that are more authentic, even if that means they’re not heroic. In many ways, this book subverts and challenges what it means to be a hero (seriously, there’s a fantastic Campell shout out in here).
My issue with literary fantasy is that it’s always a little thin on plot, and that’s true for We Are All Completely Fine. The first two-thirds of the book deal with the characters and their reluctance (or in Stan’s case, overenthusiasm) to share their trauma stories; there’s meeting after meeting, which is interwoven with each character focusing on their personal lives. It’s only when you get inside each character’s perspective that you begin to understand how damaged each character really is and what they’re hiding, even from themselves. If you find yourself disliking any of the characters intensely (excpet Stan, but I figured this was intentional), then you probably won’t like how the book develops. I enjoyed this book because I was invested in all of the characters, and if that hadn’t been the case, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it the same way.
While investigating each character’s background, the pieces of a mystery are subtly put into place. It’s so deftly done that I didn’t realize I had been reading a mystery until near the very end. This elevated a lot of what could’ve been interpreted as meandering navel gazing into a deeper, more fully formed story. When the story ended, I found I didn’t want it to end, which is the sign of reading something sublime.
- The description of the cannibals and what the Scrimshander did are truly nauseating. It’s not in your face gore, but it’s absolutely gruesome.
- This is a great example of how horror can be psychological; there is something subtly terrifying about this book that doesn’t sink in immediately.
- One of my first notes was how I hoped a certain character would become important, and I was absolutely rewarded. This book is satisfying in how it links disparate elements together.
- The supernatural elements don’t actually begin to appear in present day until almost half-way through the book; the first half of this book was a bit tedious.
- Seriously, the Campbell shout out is gold.
Read if: You like your fantasy with a literary bend. This reminded me, in the best way possible, of the character exploration done in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. This book is magical realism, where the fantasy elements are integrated into the real world in a way where you’re not sure if they’re fantastical or real until near the end.
Beware if: You like an action-packed read. This book is not heavy on action or in-your-face magic.
Rating: 4 stars because the character building and backstories pay off in interesting, if not entirely surprising, ways.