By Cynthia Ayala
Arman, in an attempt to get past his severe anxiety and self-loathing, decides to take a trip to an expensive self-help retreat deep in the remote hills of Big Sur. A trip funded by stolen money from his meth-head stepfather. But when things take a turn for the worst, mysteries abound, and nothing is what it seems, Arman must learn to trust the one person he never has: himself.
Published on August 2, 2016, by Dutton Books for Young Readers, The Smaller Evil by Stephanie Kuehn is a young adult coming of age tale that combines mystery and thriller in a contemporary setting that will bewilder the mind.
This is one of those novels that presents itself as one thing and then takes a turn and becomes something else. The novel itself has a frame narrative, one story within another and until the end it’s unclear how the two stories are going to interact with one another, how they play off each other. And yet, they play off each other perfectly, creating tension and wonder for the reader and making the reader wonder just what is going on within the confines of the story, especially once things take a left turn.
Kuehn tricks the reader, she lures them into a false sense of security about the story, misleading them with cleverly directed and written misdirection that brings about this whole different side of the story and the characters. Situations are rapidly escalating and changing more than Arman is ever used to and it elevates the story, it develops this character who is helping himself by growing and changing, even when it seems like he isn’t. And it doesn’t just happen. The story moves quickly, but by paying attention the reader can see the slow changes in the main character. The reader is able to understand and see where the character is coming from.
Moreover, the frame narrative and the way that Kuehn employs the functionality of narrative makes for great reading. It’s brilliantly written and gives the reader a fresh look at a well done frame narrative where there are two stories, one that is independent and one that relies on the other strongly yet also takes on the point of view that is almost second-person. So the reader is not only drawn in on the premise but is also inserted into the story by the writer.
The Smaller Evil is a thrilling novel that takes the most unexpected ride as it draws the reader in chapter by chapter leading them to final mind blowing ending that no one could have seen coming. (★★★★☆ | A)