Review: Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

Initial reaction: Word to the wise: the less you know about this book, the better it’ll probably seem to you. The writing was very good, and I’ll admit I really liked turns of the book where I followed Jamie through his meandering quest to discover his past and navigating the convoluted hints his sister, Cate, drops.

But I have to say that there were things I didn’t like about the narrative and places where I think it could’ve added just a bit more to give it that extra punch for the aim it was going for. Hopefully I can expand upon those points in the review to come. I’ll try to make it spoiler free.

Full review:

Disclosure time: I have no idea what to rate this book. Seriously, I just don’t, and I’m still at a war with emotions regarding it. I do think Stephanie Kuehn did an awesome thing with the aim with this book and I’ll admit I was very, very intrigued by the ending of this considering the events and strides that led up to that point, but there was still something that I thought was missing through the experience when finishing the book.

Upon meditation, I think I know what it was, but before I get to that point – let me establish a few things about this book. I’m going to get what I didn’t like about this out because I think that’s easier to talk about and make constructive suggestions on where the narrative struggled a bit.

First off, you guys know how I feel about slut shaming. And you know how I feel about character typing when it comes to mental illness. There were instances in this book featuring these two aspects that I didn’t really like for the way they were presented.

Jamie’s the narrator of this particular tale: he’s the perspective character expanding upon the tragedies that he and his sister Cate had to endure growing up. His mother was killed (we’re not entirely sure of details except for the muddled memories of the protagonist), but suffice to say, Cate and Jamie ended up with a foster family. Cate is characterized as being this out of control, angry, powerful, coercive, sexual, blunt, and overall domineering presence in her brother’s life.

I can get behind that characterization of Cate on the surface if it were portrayed in that way just by its lonesome – she’s domineering, intimidating and scares the everloving crud out of our protagonist, especially when the very beginning of this book presents Cate in a “She’s BAAAACK!” kind of way. You can tell that Jamie wants to get the heck away from her and that no one told him about his sister’s release because they knew it would upset him badly (understatement).

But I was a bit uncomfortable with the fact that Jamie kept fixating on certain things when he described Cate – whether it was the way she dressed or her relationships with guys or things of that nature. Instead of focusing on her possible sketchy wrongdoings and manipulations of people from the get go in concrete examples, it villainizes Cate based on her relationships and appearance in places, and I wasn’t here for that – although it’s the kind of detail you would miss if you’re not looking. Plus, some of the details surrounding Cate’s manipulations were vague, including her dabbling in hypnosis among other things that Jamie reveals as the narrative goes onward. The other thing that concerned me was the portrayal of mental illness, which is a huge focus in his book. Jamie has anxiety issues, and his sister is said to have OTT issues, and somehow – to me it felt vaguely portrayed, despite its focus. I’m told a lot of details here, not really shown them and as a result the narrative in places felt removed and overly drawn out instead of keeping me at the helm the whole time where I should’ve been: in Jamie’s head as he witnesses and experiences events, especially with his sister’s return.

Long story short, I kind of expected a little more than what I was given, because there were interesting details and even the writing Kuehn does in her sparse, descriptive style is good. When I could get into Jamie’s sense of fear and anxiety with Cate’s return and her observances of him even in intimate moments, I was hooked. (Ohhh, you should’ve seen my face when Cate calls Jamie on his cellphone while he’s intimate with a girlfriend – that was a scene that had tension cranked from zero to sixty. She certainly pops in at random times to remind him that she’s got things to tell him and he’s not going to like them very much).

I think at a certain point in the book, a bit past the rough beginning, I started feeling for Jamie’s experiences because the emotions started connecting a little more intimately. He’s confused, he’s scared, doesn’t know what’s going on – wants to find out what’s wrong with him, and he can’t win for losing even with all the details that are coming up in his face and he searches (with girlfriend in tow) for clues from past and present relations, friendly or not so much. It’s a bit convoluted for journey in places, but the guy genuinely wants to figure out what went on in his past with his mother and what drove his sister over the edge. The answers…aren’t what he expects, but as a reader, you can connect the dots if you’re really looking for them, and it comes across as obvious once it hits. The reason this didn’t go over as well for me in the vein of psychological horror was that I already knew after a certain point what was going to happen for the reveal. The ending, however, still held a certain deliciously creepy edge to it, however, and I think that’s what Kuehn was aiming for, but the problem was that the narrative didn’t keep a consistent flow for me to really get the full impact of that ending for what it intended, plus issues with the “show not tell” measure. Some intimacies in the narrative were solid (Jamie liking Thelonious Monk? – Score! His respective cognitive issues and his therapist not really vetting them out? Not so much.)

This is my first venture with Kuehn for her narratives, and I’m intrigued in places enough for this to follow more, but I wish this was just a bit better in the journey. The premise was good, the writing had beautiful turns and bit details for characterization, and the ending was solid for emotion. The journey getting there, however? A bit too rough.

But it kept me reading.

Overall score: 3/5 stars

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher.

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