I first saw this book years and years ago in Borders when I was about fourteen. I was attracted to it by the odd sideways layout (that I can’t seem to find a picture of) but then promptly forgot about it until last week when I came across it in the library. Not only was I pleased to see it, I’m the first person ever to check it out which is always a tiny thrill.
Charlie Gordon, IQ 68, is a floor sweeper, and the gentle butt of everyone’s jokes, until an experiment in the enhancement of human intelligence turns him into a genius. But then Algernon, the mouse whose triumphal experimental tranformation preceded his, fades and dies, and Charlie has to face the possibility that his salvation was only temporary.
This has to be one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read Sylvia Plath. It’s the kind of book where you want to claw out your own eyes when you’ve finished so you never ever have to feel that miserable ever again. Only a very powerful book can make you feel that way, and Flowers for Algernon definitely succeeds. The last page in particular made me actually whimper with the sheer injustice. I was laid in bed at 2am (because I was that intent on finishing it) with my mouth wide open, gasping at what I’d just read.
Charlie isn’t a likeable character particularly – before the experiment he is friendly yet naive, but afterwards he is so arrogant, cynical and hostile that I just wanted to punch him. Watching his rise to dizzying heights and then tumble back down can’t help but make you feel for the man though. One of the most hurtful parts for me was watching Charlie realise that the people he thought were his friends had actually been mocking him for his odd behaviour. Similarly, he slowly remembers his childhood and his Mother who loathed him for being ‘different.’ Those parts in particular made me want to shun the human race completely and go live in a cave.
It’s not an easy book to read, and not just because of the resulting misery. The first chapters are written in a very similar way to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time as it’s written as a sort of diary by Charlie himself. As his intelligence increases, so do his reports and eventually they read like a scientific report which is equally difficult to process. It’s not an action-packed book by a long stretch – it’s more Charlie’s musings on what’s happening to him and his record of the memories that are slowly coming back to him.
There is a film (called Charlie, I believe) but I never ever want to watch it. Ever. I don’t think I can handle watching it on the big screen without spending the rest of the evening curled in the foetal position.
I highly recommend this book – it’s written in such a subtle, changing POV that you can really empathise with the confusion Charlie feels – but not if you’re feeling fragile.