It’s no secret that most of the care packages that get put into my pantry contain sweet, life-sustaining genre fiction. Sci-fi, fantasy, romance, all that sort of thing, delights both fun and sweet. I do, however, also find a fair share of dramatic literature as well and today’s meal is served up piping hot and filled with a stream-of-conscious narrative to hopefully match the best in drama and tragedy. Does Mr. Kalsi bring the goods or did he drop the plates on the way to the table?
Before we find out, let us stand up straight, hands over our hearts, and recite the Starving Review pledge:
- I attempt to rate every book from the perspective of a fan of the genre
- I attempt to make every review as spoiler-free as possible.
Stove-Junker stands out immediately from the other books I’ve bitten into it during my stint here as the first (purposeful) stream-of-consciousness tale so far. This stylistic choice, where the chef serves up the meal in a way to emulate how the character’s thoughts in the book pour out, can be a polarizing one among the literary food world. Some people relish the delights of cutting through the myriad thoughts of the human mind; others are turned off by the potentially scattered and confusing narrative. Much of this hinges on the skill of the chef, whether he can craft these numerous threads of thought into an over-arching, decipherable, story.
Mr. Kalsi certainly shows his writing chops by managing to do so. Though certainly embracing the spontaneity and mystery inherent in turning immediate thought into a meal, the chef here imposes a certain order to the chaos, never devolving the stream-of-consciousness narrative into a total morass of words. Making sense of the system may take a chapter or two but, once you have adapted to the unique style, the rest of the book becomes simple to read. With the devil-in-the-kitchen dealt with, let’s touch upon the high points before we get to my one main criticism of Stove-Junker.
The biggest virtue here is the imagery. Images, themes, meaning flows through every bite of words, especially as the narrative barrels deeper into the past of the protagonist. These aren’t flowery words for the sake of flowery-e-ness (That there is a scientific term!) and it certainly isn’t purple prose. Everything is constructed with purpose and works towards the deeper themes of the book.
That doesn’t mean that plot and character are left out here, though! There is no fear in the chef to depict our cast in the harsh light of reality, even if their actual reality is questionable at times. The main cast is starkly real and therefore imminently relatable. No flatbread here, everything has been properly baked and is well-risen. The plot itself steps a bit beyond simple dramatic character study (though that could be considered its core element) with some delicate mixes of mystery and a dash of the supernatural as well. Really, this is all almost perfect ….
And you know that is a set-up for my one criticism. Stove-Junker is soul-crushingly bleak. There are certain segments that push into true horror and I don’t mean ‘running out of bread-rolls at a posh dinner party’ or even ‘serial killer stalking you’ horror. I mean the kind of horrific things you know to be real, that you know happen every day, and there is no upside. There is no justice and there is no dramatic payoff. It’s bitingly real but at the same time depressing as all hell. Now, it is pretty obvious from early on that this book is tragic (the core themes, not the writing talent!) and this can be expected, but there are so few points of light, so little contrast to the waves of sorrow, that it threatens to turn the entire thing, beautiful imagery and deep themes and brilliant characterization and all, into just one grey wasteland.
This doesn’t quite come to fruition, thankfully. Stove-Junker remains, despite that, a beautifully-decorated and sharply-flavorful cake with rich swirls of meaning, but the continual bitter sting of despair never leaves your mouth. Some readers might find richness in that and, if you enjoy continual tragedy, you might add an extra start to my final verdict. Even if you don’t and enjoy a good bit of dramatic literature, you still should find the time to take a bit out of Stove-Junker, just be ready for what you’re getting into!
FINAL VERDICT: **** (A beautiful cake with rich flavors of meaning but the bitter sting of despair is constant.)