Review: The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins


A missing God.
A library with the secrets to the universe.
A woman too busy to notice her heart slipping away.

Carolyn’s not so different from the other people around her. She likes guacamole and cigarettes and steak. She knows how to use a phone. Clothes are a bit tricky, but everyone says nice things about her outfit with the Christmas sweater over the gold bicycle shorts. After all, she was a normal American herself once.

That was a long time ago, of course. Before her parents died. Before she and the others were taken in by the man they called Father. In the years since then, Carolyn hasn’t had a chance to get out much. Instead, she and her adopted siblings have been raised according to Father’s ancient customs. They’ve studied the books in his Library and learned some of the secrets of his power. And sometimes, they’ve wondered if their cruel tutor might secretly be God.  Now, Father is missing—perhaps even dead—and the Library that holds his secrets stands unguarded. And with it, control over all of creation.

As Carolyn gathers the tools she needs for the battle to come, fierce competitors for this prize align against her, all of them with powers that far exceed her own. But Carolyn has accounted for this. And Carolyn has a plan. The only trouble is that in the war to make a new God, she’s forgotten to protect the things that make her human.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

The Library at Mount Char is a novel where you must not wish to arrive, but which you may approach stealthily, sideways. Yet even then, it comes rushing towards you like an oncoming train, unstoppable.

The novel begins, and it’s like a nightmare; you expect, each moment, to wake to relief.

Father is missing, and it’s an answer to a question unasked, just out of your reach. You sit very still, waiting for the next answer to come. Father is missing, but his Library is still standing, like a kind of awful memorial to him. It’s a place built to make you want to keep driving away from it—literally. For years, Father held the lives of the 12 children he kidnapped in his steady grip. For years, they all thought Father might be God.

Carolyn, the protagonist of Hawkins’ nightmarish novel, was formed, alongside her siblings, in the desperate, keep-alive pattern of the years they spent at the Library, losing their innocence like the bloom off a dandelion while committing themselves to Father’s blood-drenched set lessons. They were smashed and spitted, torn to pieces, killed and killed, so that nothing so noble as love, or forgiveness, could ever claim space in them. But they have lived and grown to strength and Father is missing, and Carolyn is come looking for her vengeance.

Father had set the fire, but Carolyn will provide the tinder to burn it all down.

“That’s the risk in working to be a dangerous person,” she said. “There’s always the chance you’ll run into someone who’s better at it than you.”

I’ve come to realize that the only stories that really matter to me are the ones I don’t, and can’t, understand. What’s mysterious, ambiguous, unfathomable. So naturally, I loved the fuck out of this book.

Spending time in this novel is an exercise in trust—trusting that though the author will take you to deep, dark places, he won’t abandon you there. The Library at Mount Char is full of eclectic, macabre details. The author lets the reader into his world abruptly, and the beginning of the novel brings with it the buzzing sense of a warning, the sounds that come a moment before wasps swarm. I felt like I was reading a mystery book with every third line missing, unable to shake off the suspicion that there was something hovering just on the edge of the pages, waiting to pounce if I looked directly at it.

Through a fragmented narrative, we piece together Carolyn’s past, and much of the novel’s white-knuckled tension stems from the increasingly horrific flashbacks that the author wields with wicked skill. There is a tangible sense that Hawkins is holding out on the reader for effect, and that feeling of unreliability is particularly heightened by Carolyn whose thoughts run deep and silent, like subterranean rivers.

Carolyn’s rage was a closed house, and it made me afraid. She is a very interesting character. There was gravity in her, something somber and bleak. Everything Carolyn did, she did it with the grim purpose of a ship, battened against a storm. The novel allows the reader only a peek of her motivations and plans, but the hint of it is as dangerous as a coiled adder. And it’s what constantly pulled me toward the pages as if by a hook in my chest.

Carolyn’s relationship to Father—and her siblings—is another point of intrigue. Carolyn hates Father, but hate, it seems, binds as strongly as love. Father’s chief skill was excavating the souls of his charges, digging into their center, and like some sort of malefic cat with a ball of strings, tangling their emotions until they lost all distinction between love and hate. “You can adjust to almost anything,” remarks Carolyn, chillingly, throughout the novel. And it’s that sentence that often echoed through my mind every time the narrative yields a new facet of the characters, and I struggled to reconcile what I thought I knew of them with what I’m reading before me.

“Step down into the darkness with me, child.” Just that once, Father looked at her with real love. “I will make of you a God.”

There’s a swirl of chaos at the heart of the story, yes, but the novel is tightly plotted and beautifully contained. The Library at Mount Char leaps from terror to terror. Things get nasty. Get bloody. Get complicated. But it’s fun, too, and for every string of violence, there’s a welcome stretch of hearty banter. It’s clear that Hawkins knows exactly when to dole out the humor amidst the havoc, and his infallible ability to veer from terrible dread to downbeat comedy in the span of a paragraph makes for an incredibly thrilling ride.

As for the ending, it felt like a déjà-vu—so familiar that it registered less as tragedy than as nodding predictability. But in a good way, and it was satisfying to see all threads connecting eventually.

Hawkins’ heady brew of visceral horror is irresistible. The Library at Mount Char is a bracingly original, mind-blowingly twisty, and fiendishly clever novel. It’s also unlike anything I’ve ever read, and it’s all the better for it.


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