If you are looking for a feel good read, go find another book, because this isn’t the right one for you. If you enjoy bizarre and unsettling stories which are surprising (but not in a good way), read away. How does the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events translate his dark style of writing into the adult realm? Your answer can be found in his newest novel, We Are Pirates.
Daniel Handler certainly has mastered that surreal touch of horror. All the characters are flawed. Their human faults prey off one another, like in a pool game where the cue ball hits one of the characters which ping off one or two of the others. In this case, the lucky ones end up in the pocket, and the losers stay in play throughout the book. Right up front Handler tells us about his youthful indiscretion of listing “pirate” on his high school aspiration list. Even then he realized that the vision of pirate seemed exciting and adventurous, while the reality contained a brutality and violence beyond our imagination. This is that story.
There are two parallel plot lines being told which somehow intersect. One is the story of fourteen year old Gwen who is rebelling against her parents. She feels unwanted (her name was left off the yearly Fourth of July open house invite), displaced with no friends (they have moved to an upscale neighborhood in San Francisco), scarred (there’s a mark on her leg from a accidental burn as a toddler), constantly under scrutiny (her mother searches her room regularly), bored (she isn’t allowed to take the bus alone), and disconnected from her parents (they don’t have a clue). While at the dentist, she accidentally meets up with a kindred spirit, Amber, who is just as mixed up and angry at the world. Together they devise a life changing plan – they decide to become pirates. Gwen, as a punishment for shoplifting at the local drug store, volunteers at a nursing home by caring for Errol, The Captain, who is fascinated with novels such as Captain Blood and Treasure Island. Gwen borrows these books and together they perfect the pirate lingo. Errol has Alzheimers, so he is easily persuaded to be Captain of the planned venture. Manny, an aide at the Jean Bonnet Living Center, also feels mistreated and misunderstood, and agrees to go along. Up to this point, the plot line is a harmless frolic. Then the friendly banter morphs into malice and mayhem involving drugs, kidnapping, theft, and even murder. This is where our pity towards lost souls turns into terror at the senseless violence. They truly become pirates.
The second story is about Gwen’s father, Phil Needle, a radio producer who is looking for that one idea which will propel him into the successful business man he desperately feels is his destiny. The truth is that Phil’s life is a mess and he’s close to financial ruin. He does have a potential masterful idea, but he can’t come up with a title. Just at the point he is ready to give his pitch, there’s a phone call that his daughter is missing. Phil, despite his narcissism, does love Gwen, so he drops everything and sets out for home, driving from LA to San Fran, as quickly as he can.
Somehow things get tied up in a frayed bow by the end of the novel, but it’s an ugly package to be decorating. There are too many baffling questions left up to the reader to ponder. The story is told by a narrator looking back and making comments on the culture of the times (these tidbits are an interesting aspect of the story, actually providing hope for a successful conclusion to the saga). But who is this story teller? Is it a reporter looking for an angle on the pirate scandal? Is it a private investigator looking for clues? Is it the author, putting himself in the position as impartial observer? In order to get a better understanding of what has occurred between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the time frame within this novel, it is necessary to reread the opening chapter. This is the true ending, not the beginning, of this book, which, although it provides some closure, also leaves the reader even more disgusted about the dynamics of the Needle family.
The style is easy, but the plot is strewn with stormy weather. If you have your sea legs, anchors away. Those who like smooth sailing, choose a different book. I give We Are Pirates three stars.
I’d like to thank Bloomsbury Publishing and Netgalley for allowing me a free download of this title in exchange for an honest review.