A few months ago I was reading a forum thread about underrated books. One commenter mentioned The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. They said that they couldn’t even begin to describe the plot of this book in a coherent way but that it had made them laugh, cry and rethink their entire existence. Intrigued by this description and being the kind of person who is willing to read anything with ‘library’ in the title, I picked up a copy, started reading and did not surface for 48 hours. It was that good.
I’ll do one better than the initial commenter and attempt to describe what this highly original fantasy novel is about. Carolyn, our protagonist, has been raised in the titular library by an omnipotent, immortal being known as ‘Father’ along with eleven other children. Over the millennia, Father has mastered twelve different skills, ranging from the expected (war and medicine) to the distinctly unexpected (talking to animals and the dead). For reasons unknown, he has committed to teaching each of the twelve children one of his skills and forbids them from learning anything outside of their assigned discipline. Carolyn has been tasked with achieving mastery of all languages and her classes consist of a lot more than tapping her way through Duolingo. But in spite of Father’s cruel teaching methods and her often homicidal siblings, Carolyn manages to grow up into a seemingly normal, semi-functional adult (albeit one who definitely needs a lot of therapy ASAP). The novel opens on the siblings as adults, after they have just been unceremoniously ejected from the library, the only home they’ve ever known, and the Father who has dominated their entire lives has mysteriously disappeared. The siblings initially work together to locate Father but as the novel progresses, their focus soon shifts to competing to see which of them is worthy of replacing him.
I know it sounds complicated and insane (and that’s because it absolutely is) but I need you to trust me and give it a chance. The novel is full of absolutely surreal humour that somehow sits perfectly alongside pertinent questions about the nature of free will, what it means to be human and the impacts of childhood trauma. I’ve seen people compare this book to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and while I can see similarities I think that what Hawkins accomplishes here is much more original. While Gaiman borrows mythology and gods from cultures around the world and blends them into one narrative, Hawkins has created a mythology all his own and the results are astounding. You literally will never guess what is coming next, it could be anything from a talking tiger to a supernaturally strong killing machine in a tutu. I was completely riveted and by the time I finished the book I felt oddly bereft and wobbly, the way you do when you first get off a rollercoaster.
While I should warn that sections of this novel are very violent and upsetting, Hawkins handles it expertly. At no point does it feel gratuitous or exploitative but as a reader you still feel the full impact of what is happening and your heart breaks for the characters involved. The way that Hawkins flips between Carolyn and her siblings incredibly traumatic upbringing and their present as supernaturally powerful beings adds real emotional heart to a story that otherwise might seem removed from reality. Months later I’m still thinking about David and the transformation he undergoes as Father moulds him into the ultimate warrior. In spite of the terrible acts he commits over the course of the novel, I can’t help but feel a twinge of sorrow thinking about the child he was and the man he could have been had Father not intervened.
The character of Carolyn in particular highlights the contrast and melding of the ordinary and the divine. As our primary narrator, I initially viewed her as a sort of everyman character (albeit one who thinks gold cycling shorts and a Christmas jumper are an inconspicuous outfit choice). But as the story slowly unfolds we see this image start to crack and realise that Carolyn is far from a reliable narrator. Her sense of humanity and reality has been so warped by her upbringing that towards the end of the novel I started to wonder if perhaps Father wasn’t the only villain in this story. The way Hawkins portrays Carolyn’s shift from lovably quirky, vulnerable protagonist to a very dangerous individual indeed is so gradual that the reader almost doesn’t notice until it’s too late.
I honestly couldn’t believe this was Scott Hawkins’ debut novel. It was so supremely confident and well-thought out and original that this felt like the work of someone much further along in their career. I’m already excited to read whatever comes out of his brain next. In the meantime, you may be in the fortunate position of being able to experience this wild ride of a book for the first time and I would strongly advise that you grab this opportunity with both hands.