Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance
Have you ever read a book and thought; man, the writing is beautiful, the story is interesting, why isn’t it working for me? That was my experience with Ruth Emmie Lang’s Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance. Magical realism is a fascinating world to play in, and is, at its heart, about finding magic in everyday life. This story, however, seemed more about finding the ordinary in the extraordinary, and the result was a beautiful story that just didn’t click with me.
Beasts starts slowly, with the birth of one Weylyn Grey. From the night of his birth in 1968, he’s been different, and throughout his story – which we see through the eyes of those around him – that fact is proven over and over again. Weylyn can speak with animals, can make things grow, can influence the weather, all of them amazing abilities, but it just feels… normal. More about that in a moment.
Weylyn’s parents die when he is young, still in kindergarten, and when the state comes to take him, he runs away into the woods and lives with the wolves. At this point, Michigan in 1979, we meet our first real narrator (other than the doctor who delivered him), Mary Penlore. Mary is a pre-teen girl who feels abandoned after her mother’s death and her father’s difficulty communicating with her. After befriending Weylyn (who, despite having lived with the wolves since around the age of six, is not feral), she runs away and lives with Weylyn and the wolves for several weeks, until they are both picked up by the authorities. Mary is sent back to her father, and Weylyn ends up in Oklahoma, fostered by the Kramers, a pastor and his family.
With the Kramers, we get Lydia, our next narrator, and she is fabulous. The outcast in a family of beautiful women, Lydia is sarcastic and talkative beyond belief, a good foil for Weylyn who, as a wolf-child, is the opposite. But there is friction in the family, both before and because of Weylyn, and so off he goes again.
We see Weylyn growing up through the eyes of those around him, but it’s all told in first person, and each storyteller feels much like the one before. From Mary, the girl who ran away with him to live with wolves, to Lydia, his adopted sister, to Duane the logger and friend, there’s no real character, just a narrator. It’s difficult to see Weylyn from different points of view while the internal monologue all feels the same.
The story is structured as a dual timeline, with modern day interludes set between glimpses of Weylyn’s past. I find it interesting, however, that although it is framed as Weylyn telling Roarke (a young teen) his stories, each part is actually told from an outside point of view (the narrators I’ve mentioned) and is more about the effect of Weylyn on those around him than it is his own story. Is he telling Roarke what we are reading? Is he just saying what happened to him, without the narrator’s point of view? It’s never really clear, and there were times it felt like Weylyn knew what that particular narrator was thinking and feeling, which was a little disconcerting.
The characters in the story don’t seem to have much in the way of an arc. Weylyn, our central figure, is the ‘naïve and wise child’ – you know, the one who seems pure and innocent and yet wiser than the hills. Leeloo from The Fifth Element is a science fiction example of this, as both a protector and someone who needs protection. It’s an interesting archetype, but doesn’t leave any room for growth. The Weylyn we meet at the beginning is much like the Weylyn we see at the end. Mary and Lydia, for all their narrative importance, have basically no development whatsoever. Yes, things happen to them, but they are just along for the ride, not driving the car.
The magic in this magical realism novel is vast. Weylyn can do amazing things, but they are rarely framed as such. When it comes to his life with the wolves, Weylyn can talk with animals, can understand them and have them understand him. They want to do things for him. When he and Mary are in the wilderness, attempting to fend for themselves, the wolf character is just another character, another part of normal life, and not actually a wolf. They look for food, they get cold, they look for food again, Mary misses showers, and that’s it. The wow factor of ‘how do you talk to animals!?’ is there and gone in an instant, and the magic fades as a result. Each of the characters has a moment, upon introduction, where they are amazed by Weylyn and his abilities, but it’s just that, a moment. The magic part of the magical realism here seems completely divorced from the rest of the story. It’s disappointing.
There’s something else I’ve gone back and forth on with this book – the writing. There are times it’s beautiful and lyrical; here, for example:
We sat there for a long time, watching the sun sink into the valley like butter melting on toast, or at least, that’s what it looked like at first. The longer I stared at it, the more it looked like the tree line was reaching up into the sun, not the other way around.
But then I come across a list of dates and times, or unimportant details about how sensitive Mary’s mother’s sense of smell was, and I just wonder… why? It doesn’t enhance the story. It doesn’t further the plot or the character arcs. It’s just… there.
Finally, I do want to touch on the romance. Weylyn and Mary, his first real human friend, meet up again later in life, in 1997, and their budding romance is lovely, but never really feels defined. She’s attracted to him, you think probably feels the same way, but it’s more dreamlike than anything else, more wish-fulfillment than actual functional relationship.
There are some books you devour right out of the gate, and others that take more time to grow on you. I think Beasts falls into that second category, because even with its faults, I found myself picking it back up over and over, wanting to know how the story ended. And now that I’ve finished it, I think I need to go back and reread it. But I’m ultimately left wanting more, and I don’t think what I want is actually part of the story the author wanted to tell.