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.
There is a unique sort of agony to this book that I can’t exactly describe. My heart feels both hollowed out and so heavy my chest could not hold it. The Wicker King beckoned me closer with delicate claws then sank its fangs into my heart and I think a part of me will never fully escape it.
See, there are books you like and then there are books you end up thinking about in the middle of the night with a cosmic ache in your chest, feeling like what still existed of you has been wrung out with all the things you want to say but can’t really articulate.
This book is one of them.
So, what’s this book about?
Jack and August’s lives should have shot out in different directions—Jack, the golden-haired varsity rugby player with the seemingly perfect life, and August, the poor kid who runs drugs in their high school to make extra money. Instead, they’ve emerged from the other side of their differences with the kind of relationship that is blinding, deafening, maddening—August pushing exactly as hard against Jack as he did against him, so that everything they had built would stay standing and if either let up or gave it more of his weight, it would fall and crumble.
When Jack’s hallucinations begin, as sharp as they are unknowable to anyone else, Jack settles into the unwavering conviction that he sees into a parallel world in need of rescuing. Helpless, August starts sustaining himself on the misplaced hope that if he humored Jack and helped him cope, Jack would lose the truth of himself a little more slowly.
But neither of them is a soft place the other could fall. Both victims of emotionally and physically neglectful parenting, Jack and August are all edges, trying to fill the empty spaces inside with each other. They have driven more miles than a lot of people do in a lifetime, and no matter how much August wanted to carry Jack’s luggage, the truth was that he could barely manage his own. They have spent so long building up their shared fortress and learning to tend it all by themselves, but what happens when those ramparts start resembling prison walls, high and barbed and near-impossible to cross? What happens when the demons they’ve barely kept barricaded away by an unhealthy codependency surface? When the dam they’ve built is no longer enough and the floodgates break open on a toy factory they set on fire?
The Wicker King is a brilliantly written and plotted novel, a miasma of wretchedness and pain, a book that I devoured but deeply, utterly abhorred.
Over the course of the story, the pages darken which I think effectively communicated the characters’ interior turmoil, heightening it to near-grotesque levels. I was literally holding my hand to my chest like it would keep my heart from breaking out of me. The plot is gripping, and the characters are powerfully drawn, but it’s the raw and unpolished look at mental illness, the repercussions of an indifferent, dismissive and neglectful parenting and the dynamics of a deeply unhealthy relationship that makes this a novel that will be hard for readers to forget.
This is a story that will bear so much aching familiarity to many of us—who are digging through the barren and rocky soil of life with the hollow echoing of an instinct we can no longer lean against, who harbor many vacant spaces inside without knowing what it is that carved out the absence, who can’t find a way to tell people closed to us the truth and make them understand it, who quickly find out that returning to a mental place you once knew as well as your own shadow isn’t the same as never leaving at all.
If you’re reading this, I hope you find the strength to get through whatever it is that’s causing you so much trouble or pain at the moment. I hope you know that your heart is built for something other than sorrow and that your mental health is just as important as your physical health. And I hope you feel safe and warm and content, like being wrapped up in a blanket by the fire while it storms outside.
“If you drop the weight you are carrying, it is okay. You can build yourself back up out of the pieces.”
CONTENT WARNING FOR: violence, parental neglect, abuse, mental-illness (degenerative hallucinatory disorder), codependency, anxiety, panic attacks.