In all my reading, I do my best not to compare books unless they are written by the same author. Despite mentally bludgeoning my brain with punches, I couldn’t help it. The fact that I took to reading this book within minutes after finishing a novel that left me disappointed, Bacigalupi’s The Alchemist unexpectedly lifted my mood. I was charmed by the contrast in plot, characters, and writing style—so much so that I might suggest you consider the influence this has over my four-star rating. (Although I assert indifference, I secretly harbor waves of emotion that occasionally reach the surface. Ergo: If I go on a date with a man whose bad behavior tops Charlie Sheen (i.e., the disappointing novel), I just might mistake my next date for Ewan McGregor (because no one can break my McGregor love) when he’s really just another, though not-as-bad, Sheen (i.e., The Alchemist). In other words: do I honestly think this is a good book, or am I on a high because my previous read left me flirting with the idea of breaking its spine?)
So I read it a second time.
And then I read it a third time, at which point I decided, “Yes. This is good.”
Truthfully, I did not expect much from a book only 95 pages long. That said, I’m impressed by what Bacigalupi’s writing manages to accomplish in such short length. Through the entirety of this story, not only can I solidly grasp the characters—their relationships, emotions, behaviors, surroundings—but there are quite a few passages that I find impressionable. The story begins:
It’s difficult to sell your last bed to a neighbor. More difficult still when your only child clings like a spider monkey to its frame, and screams as if you were chopping off her arms with an axe every time you try to remove her.
And just a couple more examples:
It’s easy to fail yourself, but failing before another, one who has watched you wager so much and so mightily on an uncertain future—well, that is too much shame to bear.
I held up my torch, staring. Even at the perimeter of the balanthast’s destruction, the bramble growth hung limp like rags. I stepped forward, cautious. Struck a damaged plant with a gloved hand. Its vines sizzled with escaping sap, and collapsed.
While I read, I pictured everything vividly (minus the device used to kill bramble, I’ll admit) like a movie playing out in my head. There are parts that I feel occur almost too suddenly, such as how the relationship between Jeoz and Pila strides onto a new level within a mere sentence or two. This is, however, a short, short story—not a novel that spends time elaborating and exploring its characters. (I won’t deny that I did enjoy imagining this as film, picturing various character relationships and events play out as the plot trots along, unfolding.) Although brief, Bacigalupi provides you with enough detail to visualize and understand without scarring the story with poor or choppy execution.
The Alchemist was recommended to me over the summer, yet it took five months to get around to the part in which I actually read it. This is a shame, really, only because I could have taken delight in experiencing this book—which I describe as captivating and equally engaging—sooner. All in all, I am rapt by lure of this book. If your local library has it, check it out; if your favorite bookstore has it, buy it. You shouldn’t feel disappointed. I’m rather picky about which books I purchase, and I would not mind this little gem sitting on my shelf.
For a more concise, short review on what this story is about (without divulging too much), I direct you here.