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“All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” by Bryn Greenwood

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Pages
Mar 30th, 2023
0 Comments
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review by MEREDITH MCKINNIE

Four-year-old Wavy and her little brother Donal are raising themselves on a meth compound. The sporadically present parents are emotionally neglectful and physically abusive, as Valerie struggles with addiction and mental illness and Liam resents the children’s existence that complicates his drug enterprise. When Wavy witnesses a motorcycle accident and saves the driver Kellen from the wreckage, an unlikely friendship develops with the well-meaning physical giant who keeps an eye on the children. The theme of innocence is excavated in the ensuing chapters when a well-meaning aunt Brenda challenges the only family Wavy and Donal have ever known. 

The opening chapters unfold like a well-seasoned and crisp onion, new, yet cultivated, exposing a background that illuminates the present. Wavy, though young, frail, and for the most part mute, exhibits an acute intelligence and disregard for authority. Initially bounced from family home to family home and then back to the compound, Wavy forms distant attachments to her cousins while their mother, Wavy’s aunt, fears for the children’s safety. The story’s polyphonic telling challenges whose version of the truth prevails and whether the law affords nuance to quintessentially taboo actions. Additionally, Wavy is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking characters I’ve read in quite some time. 

Bryn Greenwood’s narrative style resonates like a lullaby sporadically interrupted by a trumpet. Her beautiful prose is saddled with complex content, made more unsettling by the reader’s desire for true love and a happy ending for a little girl who has never had anything to smile about. Greenwood’s story challenges the moral compass on which most of us agree, daring to push the line of appropriate conduct for the perceived greater good. She questions whether age is the appropriate barometer for maturity, whether well-meaning adults should have the last word, and when a child ceases to be a child. 

Physically uncomfortable would describe my physical and mental state reading this book, yet it did not deter me from devouring the text in less than 24 hours. I expected the book to be a hard read based on the material circumstances for the children, but the difficulty was most felt in the emotional and moral questions posed by the author. While some will find this book appalling and might even deem it to be forgiving the unforgivable, Greenwood raises questions rarely addressed out loud. This novel reminds us that silence breeds ignorance, and to truly understand the scope of an issue, dialogue must commence. I commend Greenwood for delving into the gritty underworld we all know is there but rarely confront. 

“Those letters seemed so wonderfully tragic to me. Each one a message he would never get. A note in a bottle, bobbing on the ocean. Lost.”