By my count, Year of the Beasts has received two stars; it’s in the buzz portion of our contenda list. Some of that buzz, I know, has been from me to Karyn: Cecil Castellucci is always doing interesting work, and Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole blew me away a few years ago and I can’t wait to read it, I kept saying. I’ve actually been carrying this book around in my bag for months, starting it and then stopping because…well, I don’t know why, exactly. I just wanted to keep reading it, I think. (Don’t look for sense-making there.) So it seems having a hard deadline for a review is a good thing for this type of nonsensical situation. I don’t think Karyn wants to hear any more buzz from me until I can also tell her I actually read the book.
We have: summer, the end of school, the arrival of the carnival, sisters, friends, boys. But then fall arrives, and so do tragedies, Greek myths, panels and pictures. Told in alternating chapters, this is the story of Tessa and Lulu. Castellucci writes the summer chapters, the Then chapters. Tessa and Lulu had a hard summer; Tessa is the older sister, the plainer sister, the sister with a crush on Charlie. Lulu is younger, prettier — and Charlie only has eyes for her. Powell’s art takes over the fall chapters, the Now chapters, except that Now Tessa’s monster self is apparent; she is transformed into Medusa and her hard eyed glare turns friends and family into stone figures. Her friend, Celina, is a siren, a mermaid on a seashell. And Tessa can’t take her eyes off the Minotaur, a wounded, wandering figure that doesn’t want to speak to her.
This is a sophisticated, emotional story. The climax of the story could have come off as too preachy but doesn’t — partly because of the rhythm and growing tension that the alternating chapters provide. Castellucci’s writing is simple but lovely, giving the straight up realistic half of the story a fairy tale feel. “Despite their best intentions, there was friction between the sisters that was undeniable. You could feel it in the house. They sat with it at breakfast. They passed it between them as though it were something simple, like the salt or the bacon or the coffee.” It’s somewhere between Ray Bradbury and Francesca Lia Block — poetic but quirky, sad with a light touch of humor.
Castellucci carefully examines the sisters’ relationship and the shifting friendship between Celina and Tessa. All of the anger and jealousy is layered into relationships that have a solid, loving foundation. Tessa’s hurt and growing fury are organic to the story and her situation, and the descriptions make it feel like a force of nature: wordless and massive. There’s a fine line between a realistically mean (and somewhat immature) narrator and an outright unlikeable main character. Castellucci balances very precisely right on that line; Tessa is immature and somewhat selfish…and also hurt and sad. It’s easy to identify with her when she cries on Jasper’s shoulder but can’t actually tell him all the reasons she’s crying. As her growing jealousy leads her to find petty but satisfying revenge on Lulu, I totally got it. Who hasn’t wanted to ruin a sister’s shoes, especially when that sister borrows your skinny jeans without asking? And then manages to look cuter in them than you do? Sisters can be so complicated and unfair, just by being. (Ahem. I might be speaking from experience here.) The moment that Celina realizes she and Lulu have been neglecting Tessa is a great friendship moment: simply but perfectly depicted. Castellucci excels at using small, beautifully described moments to show a larger story about jealousy and loss and learning (eventually) to look outside yourself as you grow up.
Powell’s fluid, emotional art brings a fantasy element to the story, linking Greek mythological figures to the characters Castellucci writes about. The fantasy elements thematically and visually make elegant points about being alone (being a monster), about grief (about turning to stone). The way he shows Jasper — alone, tentative and scared — helps us understand this boy who has reached his limit for being hurt. When Tessa/Medusa and Jasper/Minotaur meet, the panels vary between intimate close ups of eyes and long shots to show how far apart they are physically. They are alone, not together; tied but not touching. Powell’s art never fails to show how separate Tessa/Medusa is from her peers. They look at her, or through her, but are never really with her. She is always apart in some way. Visually, they’re a nice counterpoint to Castellucci’s prose. Instead of a quirky wit, they bring pathos and strong emotion to the story.
As for problems with the book…I am struggling to find one. On first read, the ending felt a little too simple and easy, but as I’ve gone back and looked at it a couple of times, I am not able to put my finger on what I think ought to have changed. Tessa truly struggles with her decision to respond to Celina’s and Charlie’s overtures of friendship, and when she does, it’s a beautiful, triumphant moment. I thought for a while that maybe Charlie and Celina were a little too perfect at the end, a little too mature, and possibly a little too untouched by the tragedy. But they are both transformed as well, just as separate as Tessa is from other students, sad and broken and working on healing. And I think the story would have felt too weighted down if we got too much of Celina’s and Charlie’s perspective; this is Tessa’s story.
I did have a small problem with Jasper’s character. (I am having a Heathers moment, wanting to hiss “what’s your damage, Heather?”) He is alone from the start of the story, and never grows, never changes. Why? There are hints that his mom needs extra help (stained shirt, grown out dye job), that something’s not quite right for him at home. (“It was the first time that she’d been to his house. And the sight of it startled her. The porch looked unstable. The roof looked sharp. The windows like eyes.”) We never see beyond that, though, and when he leaves the story, he’s as big a mystery as when we met him. Again, though, some of this is because it’s Tessa’s story, and we are stuck in her point of view.
My biggest critique is that I wish the ending had a lighter touch. As the two stories come together, the connections fit really organically. I’m not sure we needed to hear the doctor described as “a witch” — that was already there. I think the conversation with the principal (depicted in graphic format by Powell) was pretty clear; was it necessary to lay it all out again? Did we really need to confront Jasper in the center of a maze? (Plus: how many quaint fall festivals and start of summer carnivals does one town have?)
These are all minor complaints, though, and the more I think about it, the stronger I think this book might be. The writing is so lovely. The art is so wonderful. Everything lines up so elegantly. I’ve already given my nomination for the Pyrite, so it’s up to you guys: do you think this book goes the distance?