I received an Advanced Reader Copy of the U.S. edition in return for an honest review.
Thirteen-year-old Elliot lives in constant fear of everything. Some things are scarier than others—strangers, the color red, dogs—but it’s safe to assume that even something small and simple will scare the living daylights out of him. Or worse, that it will rouse his greatest fear, The Beast within: the fear of Fear itself. Near as anyone can tell, Elliot was born this way. No one knows if his twin sister Ellamay would have shared his fears, because she died shortly after their birth. Nevertheless she is a frequent and supportive presence in Elliot’s life, one that only he can hear.
After years of trial and error Elliot, his mother, his aunt, and his doctor have crafted a tolerable, if strictly limited, existence for Elliot: home schooling; a soundproofed bedroom with a computer, television, and 1,762 books (last time he counted); and regular doses four times a day of the one antianxiety medication that works. It doesn’t cure him of his fear, but it keeps The Beast at bay so Elliot can at least get out of bed in the morning.
It all comes apart one Christmas Eve. The pharmacy makes a mistake refilling his prescription. His mother’s car won’t start when she goes to pick up the replacement. His aunt doesn’t return on time from running the same errand, so he sends his mother to go find her. When his mother likewise doesn’t return, Elliot decides to go after her—out into the gathering night, into the teeth of a blizzard. And what should have been a simple walk through the village to his aunt’s house turns into a gripping, page-turning odyssey that, in the end, would scare the living daylights out of even a fearless teenager. Along the way, The Beast—the part of himself that Elliot most fears—proves its terrifying worth on a very primal level.
Brooks does an amazing job showing us the world through Elliot’s eyes. Elliot could easily be a tiresome character—a fragile snowflake who tests the reader’s patience. And yet I found him to be sympathetic, worth spending time with for the perspective he offers. Elliot knows he is not right in the head, and he’s willing to listen to reason even as his fear overwhelms him. Whether his sister Ellamay is real or a manifestation of his own subconscious, she pushes him to do what he needs to, and guides him to more rational views. For example, here is Elliot encountering something new in a snow-filled field where he’s hiding from his would-be rescuers and their dog:
[I]ts horned head appears at the entrance to the snow cave, and it stares at me with its demonic yellow eyes, I honestly think this is it—this is the end. . . I’m literally dying of fright. But then, to my amazement, the demon suddenly freezes, a look of surprise in its eyes—as if it’s only just realized what it’s looking at—and a moment later it rears back in fear, throwing its head to one side, and then it’s gone. […] . . . and I don’t get it, I don’t understand why the Devil is scared of me. . .[…]
It’s a sheep, Elliot. That’s all. It’s just a sheep. […] Come on, Elliot, Ella says. We need to get going.
Reading this passage, I felt Elliot’s terror at being cornered by a demonic beast, his conviction that this was the end—even though, rationally, I could see that there was still half the book to go. I experienced the sheep through Elliot, along with such gems as the kindly old neighbor whose open mouth, “for a few hideous minutes, turns into a dark cave full of bits of bone and clicky wet things and slobbers of foul liquid oozing from the roof and the walls.”
Elliot spends a long time thinking about the flock of sheep—the size of the flock, the number of eyes they have, how to get past them, what they really are versus what he once imagined them to be. But as the threats Elliot faces become more real and more frightening, his view of the world becomes more clear, and he dispenses with analysis in favor of decision and action. Facing a real rifle, he slowly recognizes that what he thought was a rifle earlier in the evening was, in fact, an old woman’s walking stick. But rather than dwell on reconstructing his earlier thoughts:
I blink hard and shake my head, clearing the useless image from my mind, and I refocus on the skinny monkem in front of me, and the rifle that definitely isn’t a walking stick in his hands.
My one gripe is the number of loose ends left untied. From the beginning, I wondered how (or if) Elliot’s experience would change him. In the end, the answer is only hinted at. We know how things are with Elliot and his family on Christmas morning, but that’s it. We’re left hanging as to Elliot’s participation in whatever inquiries follow the events of this very scary Christmas Eve. Also, Elliot’s point of view is not the only one in the story. Things that happen to the other characters—car crashes, hostage-taking, a body in the woods, desperately needing to pee—are left unresolved. To be fair, the book’s abrupt ending works. It probably works better than it would if Act 3 was played out in full. But I do wonder!
Definitely worth a read if you like thrillers, seeing the world through the eyes of someone with a very different view of it, or YA without romance or supernatural powers. The publisher recommends age 13 and up; I’d agree with that, as there is violence, cruelty, and drugs.
BORN SCARED by Kevin Brooks
September 11, 2018
Available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook