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Review: "The Nickel Boys," by Colson Whitehead

August 9, 2019

 

2 Stars.

 

Let me clarify my rating right away; I'm not giving this a 2 star rating just for the sake of being Devil's Advocate (because I see this book has already garnered an over-4-star average), but in saying that, I also will not give a book a good rating because it's the popular thing to do. If you've followed my reviews, you know I'm a mega Stephen King fan - but that hasn't stopped from ripping some of his books to shreds. Even the best miss the mark.

Admittedly, I came to The Nickel Boys with a heaping pile of expectation. I mean, Colson Whitehead is the talk of the town, after all! That's what comes with winning a Pulitzer, among many other accolades. My expectations were premature, if not a touch bandwagon-y, since I'd never actually read any of his other novels (nope, not even The Underground Railroad). That said, there is a certain expectation a reader has when it comes to reading a Pulitzer-winning author's work. And my expectation was that I'd be entertained.

I wasn't.

I thought maybe I'd missed something, so I went and read a lot of the other reviews to see what people were saying. I noticed a lot of the 4 and 5 star ratings were explained by the fact that the book touches on the important historical nature of the book's premise, but that was about it.

Yes, no doubt the book touches on something historically significant. I think if you ignore or deny that these atrocities took place in America's history, it's akin to denying the Holocaust in Europe, or the Residential School system in Canada; and if you deny or ignore that the resulting consequences of these things have rippled through decades, through generations, then you are, frankly, a fucking idiot. 

And although the premise for this book is promising and fascinating, Whitehead just really missed the mark. 

Which brings me to why I've rated the book so low. It's got nothing to do with how much promise the idea has. It's got to do with the storytelling. The book's 3 parts are choppy and brief, and a little confusing and hard to follow. The best of the 3 parts was definitely the 3rd; this section had the best writing. On page 138 there was this gem of a sentence: "People get rid of plenty when they move - sometimes they're changing not just places but personalities." Damn, I felt that. But in the book's first 2 parts, it just felt like Colson was too lazy to be a storyteller, so he slapped down some history and sprinkled in a bit of fiction for flavour, but the resulting meal was bland. The 1st part felt like more of a history lesson than an actual fictional story. Tons and tons of telling, and almost no showing. 

This is the kind of story that deserves more effort. The book is only 200 pages, and it could have been double that. Colson seemed at times to be confused with his narration. No doubt this book would have been most effective in a first-person narrative voice, and there were times when it felt like Colson unconsciously was telling the story in this voice. But the book was actually written in third-person, and at times it seemed like the narrator was angrily rambling at times; a first-person narrator angrily rambling makes sense, but a third-person narrator angrily rambling doesn't, it's just distracting; it lends to the reader hearing the author, and the author should be invisible.

There also was no meaningful character development. It felt like Colson relied to much on the reader's understanding of how awful the boys' experience was to make us feel something. The characters seemed to just plop onto the page from nowhere, fully formed. Often there was no dialogue, only exposition (again, telling, not showing). 

I do (as I often try) want to give props to the design of the book. The jacket is very appealing to the eye. Everything from the title font to the imagery is perfection. Never forget how important the book-look is!

So in the end, this one didn't do it for me. There were moments of genius literary prose, but mostly the book was disjointed and not fully fleshed out.

Onward.

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