Complicit: Fun with a psychopathic arsonist

Stephanine Kuenh’s second novel, Complicit, won’t change your outlook on life or move you to tears, but it isn’t trying to.  What it delivers is entertainment.  It’s a wild, savage book with enough psychopaths and arson to keep anyone reading.

Complicit starts with high school junior Jamie Henry finding out his sister, Crazy Cate, has gotten out of the juvenile detention center she was consigned to for burning down a barn and nearly killing a girl in the process.  By nature, Jamie is a very anxious and scattered person, which makes his narration interesting but often difficult to follow.  Almost immediately, it becomes clear that Jamie is not quite right, and neither is his sister or anything about their situation.  The entire plot is shrouded with mystery surrounding the death of their mother, the incidents involving Cate, and the truth about why Jamie is so guilty.

Complicit is a book that likes to bend the rules.  It takes what’s black and white and stretches it into something gray and murky.  It’s bold and fascinating, and maybe a bit sloppy at times, but what it lacked in polish it made up for in heart.  The main characters are infinitely complex with layers upon layers of half-truths and prevarication.  As the story unfolds and the characters get more deeply involved, their true and often darker nature is unearthed.

The psychological aspect of Complicit is one of its strengths.  It’s well-researched (casually throwing around terms like cataplexy and conversion disorder) and comes off as organic. Being inside Jamie’s head is a twisted, hectic experience.  His sister, Cate, is the most intriguing character of them all.  She is a bit overdrawn at times, but a fascinating character to read about because of her volatile emotional state and unclear motives.  Every time she makes an appearance something crazy is bound to happen.

Complicit explores some other themes in addition to mental disorders.  It explores the ways the rich and the poor view one another and how the environment affects one’s mental state.  It asks heavy questions, and its answers are messy and truthful and wholly unsettling.

The writing style is choppy and inconsistent at times.  There are a lot of one-sentence paragraphs.  Occasionally, the short grafs create a dramatic effect, but they are overused to the point that it becomes frustrating to read.  On the other hand, Kuehn’s writing style is conducive to the development of the voice of Jamie, who is often an unreliable and chaotic narrator.

Compared to Kuehn’s first novel, Charm and Strange, Complicit is psychologically horrifying in a much louder and obvious way.  Where Charm and Strange favors a much odder and confusing plot line, Complicit relies on the narrator and his internal dialogue. Both novels showcase the same uneasy tone and eccentric main character.

This book heavily relies on its conclusion.  About a quarter of the way through, I had guessed one of the big reveals.  It isn’t obvious, but it could’ve been done with a little more grace and subtlety.  With fiery force and an abundance of mystery, Complicit is compelling and ferocious.  It has its flaws, but they should be overlooked in the name of thrill.

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