Bryn Greenwood knows how to write characters with rap sheets as comprehensive as a college transcript.
The Lawrence writer’s debut novel, “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things,” is packed with the perspectives of once and future criminals: meth cookers, pill poppers, wife beaters, murderers. It’s the kind of cast (and crimes) that could come off like an after-school special.
But in Greenwood’s care, the usual tropes of hard people and hard living give way to something rarer: a novel of arrested girlhood that neither victimizes nor sanctifies the girl.
Much of the book is told from the perspective of Wavonna “Wavy” Cunningham, whom we first meet as a 6-year-old feather of a child. Wavy refuses to eat or speak in front of others, having internalized her meth-addled mother’s violent admonitions. Instead, she steals what she needs or sifts through trash for it, clinging to a weary mantra of self-preservation: “nothing belongs to you.”
Her dogged self-reliance starts to wither when she meets Jesse Joe Kellen, a grease monkey ex-con who works with her drug-dealer father. For the first time in her life, Wavy is able to carve out some semblance of stability: Kellen buys groceries for her, protects her, drives her to school on his motorcycle and stands in for her father at parent-teacher conferences.
It’s your classic odd couple story — until they fall in love.
Greenwood lets their relationship bloom over several years in alternately heart-wrenching and stomach-turning passages. Her sentences are deceptively simple, ringing with the same clarity and peculiar innocence that Wavy embodies.
“It soothed me,” Wavy writes of an evening ride with Kellen. “And I didn’t want to be soothed.”
That innocence is barbed, only amplifying our discomfort when Kellen (at 26) buys Wavy (at 13) an engagement ring. Although their romance stops shy of statutory rape, Greenwood is unlikely to keep every reader along for the ride. But the pair's connection — and Wavy's insistence on deepening it — is sincere enough to temper nausea with confusion.
This is no easy feat.
Less satisfying is the novel’s structure, which jumps back and forth among years, narrators and points of view with unclear and inconsistent patterns. On rare occasions, a chapter will switch narrators halfway through. One-off chapters from ancillary characters add to the narrative confusion.
The cumulative effect of these fragments is an unsteady hold on timelines and Wavy’s and Kellen’s ages within them — perhaps a cardinal sin for a book where the age of its characters couldn’t matter more.
Still, the disparate voices are distinctly drawn and compelling enough to keep the novel on the rails. And Wavy’s voice, which grows more confident each year, anchors the book and our expectations.
In one especially disquieting chapter, Greenwood convincingly connects the polite suburban mother of Wavy’s college roommate with Wavy’s own abusive addict mother.
The two were just as dangerous, she writes. The scales might have been different, but the damage to their daughters was the same.
In its own uneasy way, “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” provides an antidote to the rubbernecking trauma fiction that fills shelves each year. Throughout the book, Greenwood challenges the ways we glorify tragedy by patronizing those who experience it and insisting on their victimhood before their personhood.
The result is a challenging, brain-addling novel, one that shocks us less with its content than its intimacy.
“All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” by Bryn Greenwood (352 pages; St. Martin’s Press; $25.99)