I didn’t realize until I looked at the list of other books by Tom McNeal that I’ve actually read him before. I read his literary novel for adults, “Goodnight, Nebraska,” when I was in college. And I think remembering that tainted my experience of this novel somewhat, because I noticed that some of the same things that annoyed me there also annoyed me here.
There’s a certain tenuousness to McNeal’s sense of time and place in his writing. I remember my professor ranting about how annoying it was in Goodnight, Nebraska that the characters all had old-fashioned names even though it was supposed to be a modern story. In Far, Far Away, something about the interactions between characters, especially boys and girls, felt somewhat dated and out-of-touch. It was literally impossible for me to figure out the “when” of this story. We don’t see modern staples of teen life like cell phones and the Internet, and computers are only given a glancing mention, but at one point a kid talks about a drug to make you forget trauma that I’ve only heard of existing within the last 10 years. Also, I was halfway through the book before I knew how old these kids were supposed to be (15), which was so hard to pin down because of their somewhat stilted interactions.
Now a lot of that should have been able to work in a story like this, which draws on fairy tale archetypes and which, I think, attempts to draw on a certain sense of timelessness. Add to that the fact that it is narrated by the ghost of Jacob Grimm, who is unfamiliar with most current technology, and perhaps the nebulousness of time setting can be forgiven or even interpreted as intentional. Still, knowing McNeal had already pulled this in an earlier novel kept me from giving him the benefit of the doubt here.
Still, there is a lot to like here, as evidenced by my four stars. The story seems to start off somewhat slowly, and I found myself wondering whether teens would stick with it. It held my interest, though, because I really enjoyed all the references to Jacob Grimm’s life and the Grimm’s fairy tales. The characterization is also very good — you may not know what era these people live in, but it is not difficult to believe they truly live. From parents to kids to random neighbors, everyone in the town of Never Better seems to have a full story lurking beneath the surface, even if we’re only privy to a couple of them.
A little past the halfway point, the story takes a turn into darker territory, and the creepy factor is only increased by the way we’ve been lulled into a sense of “safety” with only the typical small-town conflicts to worry about, such as rumors and years-old animosities between families. In this sense, the slower build up feels totally appropriate, and those who stick with it have their reward in a thriller-like conclusion. Finally, the story uses the relationship between Jacob Grimm’s ghost and the only boy who can hear him, Jeremy, as a poignant memoir about isolation, loneliness, growing up, and letting go. Yes, I may have had tears in my eyes as I finished the final page.