“I started collecting my older sister Eunice’s suicide notes when I was seven years old,” A Cosmology of Monsters, the debut novel of Shaun Hamill, begins, and believe me when I tell you that this is one of the most challenging, beautiful, and harrowing novels I’ve read in some time.
It’s the kind of narrative that gets under the reader’s skin, shining a spotlight on the dark recesses of our own minds and relationships and forces us to ask difficult questions of ourselves and those around us.
What is a monster, after all? What makes a monster become a monster? Am I a monster? Are there monsters in my family?
The novel tells the story of the Turner family who, for whatever reason, have touched a fantastic and dangerous world beyond on our own in an inscrutable way that they do not understand. It is a land filled with monsters, and this connection slowly tears them apart from the inside out breeding obsession, disease, and strife like weeds in a springtime flowerbed.
For all its dysfunction, you see, the Turner family wants nothing more than to be whole. It simply doesn’t know how, and the unfettered realness of that challenge sparks deep emotion in Hamill’s readers.
We root for this family and at the same time we are repulsed by them. We love them, but never want to see them again.
This works most especially well in Hamill’s narrative by putting us in the capable hands of the youngest member of the family. By the time Noah was born, their troubles had already begun to take root, and much like Noah, the reader doesn’t fully understand why.
A child becomes our guide, taking our hand and leading us through Hamill’s carefully constructed labyrinth. It is effective and terrifying especially as Noah becomes more and more involved in his family’s story.
We watch as Noah grows up making the mistakes of youth and adolescence, and are unable to keep him from taking “the wrong” path. Then we question which path was right or wrong to begin with.
In short, he has created what might be considered a horror Bildungsroman–a term used in literary criticism to describe a novel that focuses on the moral and psychological growth of its protagonist in which ways a character changes is most important.
Hamill took this form literally and figuratively in his novel, earning praise from Stephen King who compared the work to the novels of John Irving who demonstrated a subtle mastery of the form in his novel The Cider House Rules.
What is most impressive, however, is that this author in his first published work knows exactly how to manipulate the reader. He creates a puzzle that demands to be solved even when we are stricken with horror by the emerging image, and he does all of this while ultimately telling a story about the importance of family and identity.
He is undeniably an impressive talent and a new voice to watch within the genre.
And remember those questions I mentioned at the beginning of this review? If you’re lucky, you might be able to answer one or two of those by the end of the book. If not, you may be pondering them for days to come.
Either way, make no mistake, once you pick up A Cosmology of Monsters, you will not put it down until its ghastly, heartbreaking conclusion.
A Cosmology of Monsters is available in hardback and e-book editions. You can pick up a copy at Amazon!