Book Review: Last Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Last Night I Sang to the MonsterLast Night I Sang to the Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
My rating: ★★★★

I do like and appreciate what Sáenz presents in this novel, and the writing style holds down a nice sense of prose blended with poetic flair and metaphor. At the same time, this story doesn’t grip me—and I mean really, truly grip me—the way other books do. I’m talking about books like There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These are books that captivate my attention and seize my emotions very firmly. What I’m saying is this: Sáenz has a powerful story (especially for the YA audience—ages 15/16 and up, though depending on maturity level), but it’s not a story I fully connect to. To be honest, I don’t think I allowed myself to fully connect; I didn’t want to.

Zach’s story is not something I was able to read through in one sitting, or even split into chunks over several days. When I started reading, I took a week-long break before I held it in my hands again. I think Sáenz does an exemplary job at relaying a proper sadness, anger, anxiety, and even confusion in relation to Zach’s history, but this is what makes it difficult to read. I’ve read stories, both fiction and non-fiction alike, that range in subjects: from sexual abuse, addiction, death, murder… They’re mood dampeners, right? Even watching the news is depressive.

My local news reported three child and several adult deaths this week, all with enough sad detail to make me say: “Enough!” I don’t want to watch the news anymore, and I had a similar reaction to Last Night I Sang to the Monster.

Unlike other stories I have read with similar topics, Sáenz’s writing effectively altered my mood state. In other stories, I’ve read and thought, “Jesus, how horrible,” and then I sympathize. This story, however, latched on and dragged my mood lower, lower, and lower for most of its length. There is a lot of gloomy text to march through, and it isn’t until Zach takes interest in his environment that I became genuinely curious about other characters (e.g., What are their stories? What will happen to them? and so on). Soon after, I found myself turning pages just hoping I could finally piece together what happened to Zach — an event that he doesn’t remember or want to remember.

What I found bothersome was forcing myself through Zach’s refusal to try to remember. Even though repressing his memory and not wanting to remember are both understandable and realistic, I sifted through repetitive “I’m sad/upset/leave me alone/God, I need bourbon” statements. Connecting to his home life, this gives a full picture necessary in comprehending Zach’s complexity of character and emotion — to understand why he is the way he is without making undue judgment from an outsider’s perspective.

Something happened to Zach, something tragic. I can’t give away what that something is, but when repressed memories and tragic events are involved, it is unlikely that an individual will feel overcome by a positive urge to comply. It’s a slow, laborious process, and readers journey in baby steps alongside Zach’s progressive course. As a result from this “progressive course,” it is promising to watch Zach learn how to trust and form relationships all the while slowly allowing his barrier to crumble.

Stories like Zach’s are not only sad to read about, but to think about, and they often do not end well. Sáenz, with admirable lyrical quality, shows that these stories do not always have to meet lamentable endings. Given, however, the right set of support and assistance—which, I think, is rare to come by compared to a general survey of outcomes. Regardless, it’s a great showcase of how a damaged individual can face odds and find inner-strength to plow through hourly struggles. Literally. Every day is a struggle—every hour, every minute, can feel like hell.

For me, and generally speaking, this story is a great example of facing your “monster” and digging deep to find a will to fight and change. Discovering a new-found sense of will means realizing I do want to live despite excruciating hurt that has inflicted life-long damage. While emotional and mental scarring may never completely heal, it’s a matter of perspective and how willing a person is to accept what has occurred and “make the best of it” (so to speak). However, there is a lot more when looking at the specifics to Zach’s story, yet I hesitate to talk about it. (I would hate to spoil anything!)

All in all: well-written example of an injured character’s journey toward recovery. Ultimately, this story bestows awareness, understanding, and — I believe — inspiration and hope. If you’re up for handling a dismal climate, I do recommend this book. You may want to consider some lighter material to balance it out, though, because I certainly did.

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