Book review: Wink Poppy Midnight, April Genevieve Tucholke

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy of the book provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered. 

April Genevieve Tucholke’s Wink Poppy Midnightdue out next month, appears superficially fairly simple: It’s about a boy moving away from the influence of a bullying girl to a creaking farmhouse on the edge of town, finding himself next door to a quirky, strange, and loving family that welcomes him in without hesitation. Yet, that simplicity is highly deceptive, which is what I’d experience from Tucholke, who is quickly establishing herself as an extremely deft writer in a subset of the gothic tradition that YA authors in general are having a growing amount of fun with, which is super exciting, because gothic novels and YA are both highly relevant to all of my interests. Her books are unsettling, complicated, and slippery in addition to being dark, and they have unexpected elements that get more and more complicated the further you read.

Midnight is a high school student who’s long been in love with Poppy, the beautiful and blonde popular girl who makes a habit of bullying and draws out a relationship with Midnight, using and abusing him at her leisure. Poppy is the girl who sees herself and kind of hates herself, but chooses to be nasty anyway, living the dream that every bully lives as she surrounds herself with sycophants and charges through the world heedless to the welfare of the people she’s struggling to relate to. Wink is the girl next door, the wild, carefree redhead who introduces Midnight to a world where he isn’t dominated by Poppy’s inevitable social control. Each of them tells their own part of the story, with the story rapidly switching between narrators who speak in staccato vignettes that pull and tease the story out in brief chapters that burst on your brain like kumquats between your teeth, sharp and slightly sweet and sour all at once.

Every story, the tagline tells us, needs a hero, a villain, and a secret. Throughout Wink Poppy Midnight, you’re going to strive to figure out who the hero and the villain are, and you’re going to think you know, but you are going to be wrong unless you skip to the end first, which you shouldn’t do, because that’s rude. Just let Tucholke take you on an interesting ride rather than trying to fight it. And throughout this book, you’re going to be surprised by who turns out to be the most reliable narrator, and who holds the darkest and most unexpected secrets. These tricks and traps for the reader are laid in such a way that they don’t feel contrived or awkward, and they aren’t designed to make the reader feel like a tool at the end of the text — they’re just an inevitable and inexorable series of events that changes the lives of the characters as they revolve around each other. Unreliable narrators can be extremely annoying when crafted poorly, which is often, so it’s exciting to see them handled well.

I feel a deep affinity for Midnight, for a variety of reasons, many of which I can’t delve into without giving away the secrets of Wink Poppy Midnight — in fact, generally speaking, there’s not a whole lot I can say about the characters in this book and a lot of the setting without giving the game away. Tucholke does, however, manage to depict three completely different and fully realised people with their own agendas, ways of viewing the world, speaking, and navigating relationships and landscapes. You can hear the unique voices in the different segments of the text, and feel the tangible distinctions between characters. It really does read like a story written by three different people, reminding me almost of the moment when cops separate suspects apprehended together to get their sides of the story separately and see how they match up.

Everything in this book marches steadily forward towards a huge event that can be interpreted in any number of ways, all of which spin out as the characters ride the crest of the plot and the reader tries to figure out what happened. It’s hard to tell a story structured this way without making readers feel like they’re being cheated, difficult to create a narrative where everyone is effectively doing a high wire act and everyone, including the reader, is hushed and still, waiting for the next thing to happen. It can either collapse horribly, with readers getting irritated by constant allusions to something in the past or future that characters refuse to reveal because they want to draw it out, or it can be transcendent, with the story slowly flowing together faster and faster until suddenly, BAM, everything becomes clear.

Wink Poppy Midnight manages to hit the transcendent note, drawing readers in and holding them there. It’s a very fast-paced read and it’s also a quick one that can be relatively easily completed at a single sitting, which is good, because you will probably want to finish it at a single sitting. Otherwise, you may find yourself distracted by thoughts of the book at inopportune moments, wanting to dip back into the world of Wink Poppy Midnight to figure out what in the hell is going on while also enjoying the rich, deep landscape that Tucholke manages to paint with relatively sparse language — you’ll smell, see, and feel the sensations the characters do in this immersive read, and you’ll be upended at the end whether you like it or not.