The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

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I’m very tempted to tell you that The Library at Mount Char is a book about the rocky and competitive road towards the coveted position of Head Librarian. I mean, I’m not lying when I say that … but it really tells you nothing about the whacked out reading experience you’re going to get if you decide to pick this up. This book is dark and disturbing. It’s funny and not a little bit nuts. It’s an incredibly quick read, fast-paced and tightly written, and I really enjoyed it.

Or at least, I think I did.

I don’t often google other reviews for something I’ve just read and plan to post about, but I did for Mount Char because I wanted to see how others had managed to talk about it without spoilers. There are three things the blogging world seem to have agreed upon: (1) Mount Char is DARK; (2) it’s a sink or swim reading experience and Hawkins isn’t about to hold anyone’s hand; and (3) it’s nigh impossible to spoil anything in this book because of the sheer level of batshittery involved in the story. And really, where on earth would a person start? Much quicker just to hand the book over to you and shout, “read this!”.

So, I can do no damage by telling you a little bit about Carolyn. Carolyn is one of twelve orphans who were in-no-way-legally adopted by a possible god when they were all about eight years old. The maybe-god is known to them as Father and he teaches them each a set catalogue of knowledge from his holy-cow-that’s-not-what-we-mean-when-we-say-library Library. They cannot share their learning with each other on pain of death. Their upbringing under Father’s rule is brutal and horrific and they are all damaged in one way or another at the point of the story’s beginning, by which time they’re all in their thirties.

I want to say that Carolyn is a good character, or easy to like, but she’s neither. She’s fascinating, for sure, all the more so as you get deeper in, but likeable? Nope. And good? I’m not sure the notions of good or bad have much of a role to play. There isn’t one character that I’d say was good – not Steve, our average Joe who gets drawn into Carolyn’s world, not Erwin the Homeland Security dude (funny yes, but not good), not any of Carolyn’s fellow adoptees, not even poor Mrs McGillicutty (but then, she’s not … all there … exactly). Maybe the closest we get is Dresden and Nagasaki, with whom it’s possible to empathise at least. But I can’t tell you anything more about them.

Something I thought Hawkins did cleverly, was play with how we see Carolyn and her fellows, (they are called “Pelapi” which means something a little bit like librarian – and if we had librarians like these in our world no library book would ever be returned late or damaged again). The first chapter throws us in with Carolyn and gives a few too-brief glimpses of the kind of life she has had, but it’s not until we start seeing her and some of the other Pelapi from Steve’s POV that we realise just how weird they really are. David, for example, whose catalogue of study is murder and war, is a blood-drenched lilac-tutu-wearing horror, alongside whom Carolyn appears no better. The problem is that the Pelapi almost don’t know what they don’t know. They put clothes on because they know that’s what the done thing is in America (and it’s not clear whether they realise there are any other places on Earth but America), and the reader goes along with it all thinking it sounds reasonable enough. And then Hawkins moves the mirror and we look again and think “oh heck no!”. It’s well done.

Otherwise, Hawkins’ writing is very straight forward and not given to over-description which makes some of the more horrifying stuff harder hitting. If all the blood and guts were being gussied up a bit more, it would feel like it was there for dramatic or entertainment purposes. Instead, it’s all just a smidge closer to disturbing than it is to decorative. Then again, the scale compensates for that. Because, yes, some terrible things happen, but some massive movie-budget things happen too, and we’ve been well-trained to brush that kind of thing off.

I guess, what I’m trying to say is that your mileage may vary when it comes to the darker elements of the book?

I recommended The Library at Mount Char to a handful of people on Twitter for the 12 Challenge over the holiday period, but I’m not going to say you should absolutely go read this book. My thinking being that this is definitely a particular kind of mood read. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fast and funny and hard to put down, but it’s also vicious in places and a certain emotional robustness is needed for those of us who are sensitive to such things. What I can say is that you’ll know within the first fifty pages or so whether you’re in or not. And it’s one heck of a ride if you decide to stick with it.

 

N.B.

Haha! D’you know what? I thought of someone who was good (or as near as). The vet Dr Alsace and her assistant Jerri. Despite the utter madness of the situation they’re thrust into, they do their job and show a little compassion. Good people for the win! *punches fist in air victoriously*

 

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17 comments

  1. Clearly this book was meant for me, and I have no excuses for not reading it yet other than there are too many books. Thank you for reminding me about it😁

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  2. I remember reading a few reviews about this book and thinking how intriguing it sounded, but then it disappeared under the avalanche of other books I was interested in and I totally forgot about it, so thank you both for reminding me of this novel and for a very compelling review – sometimes the impossibility to reveal details about the plot works quite well as an encouragement to pick up a book… 😉

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    • It’s a bit of an enticement isn’t it? “I can’t tell you about this” always makes me want yo know what I’m missing! 🤣
      I hope you do get chance to read it. I’d love to know your thoughts on this one. 😊

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    • I hadn’t realized the copy I was reading was the American edition … and am deeply puzzled as to how it got onto our library shelves, as it wasn’t a donation. 😀

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  3. In spite of your assurance this is unspoilable, I am going to come back and read your thoughts after I have FINALLY read the copy that has been on my shelf for about 3-4 years since an adorable American colleague gave it to me because she thought I’d love it and had enjoyed working together (<— the best kind of colleague, all ways round).

    So, BRB (well, "right" as in "later this year', obvs)

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