We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory
Genre: Adult fantasy/horror
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Release date: August 2014
The nitty-gritty: A short but powerful tale of six unusual people who form a support group, unexpectedly horrific and sad, which left me wanting more.
We knew each other, at first, only by our words. We sat in a circle and spoke to each other, presenting some version of ourselves. We told our stories and tried out behaviors. Dr. Sayer said that the group was the place for “reality testing.” What would happen if we exposed ourselves and shared our true thoughts? What if we talked about what we most feared? What if we behaved according to rules that were not predicated on our worst suspicions?
Perhaps the world would not end.
I picked up a copy of We Are All Completely Fine after reading several glowing reviews, and it wasn’t until I recently received a review copy of Gregory’s Harrison Squared that I realized the two books are connected. These sorts of serendipitous discoveries delight me to no end, and so I decided to read this book first, even though Harrison Squared is a prequel. I zipped through this in less than a day. At less than 200 pages, it’s a quick read, not only because of the page count, but because I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Brutally violent and shocking, Gregory gives us a highly imaginative set-up that shows how fear can control us.
Most of the “action” takes place in the past, as five lost and damaged people who have suffered supernatural traumas are brought together for group counseling by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer, who seems to genuinely want to help them recover. Stan was captured and partially eaten by a family of cannibals (but survived!); Harrison used to slay monsters, and has been immortalized in fiction as a monster detective known as Jameson Jameson (Jameson Squared); Greta has intricate scars all over her body but won’t talk about where they came from; Barbara was once captured by a creature known as the Scrimshander, who flayed her arms and legs and carved images onto her bones (then stitched her up again); and Martin hides behind a pair of video game glasses through which he can see the “dwellers” who come from another place to torment humans.
Jan cajoles them into coming together, week after week, as they gradually start to open up and tell each other their stories. If you were to take the supernatural aspects of this story away, you would still have a very powerful tale of the group dynamics of people with scars—both physical and metaphorical—who try to use therapy as a way to heal. But the weird circumstances of these characters are what makes this book so special. One by one, each character tells his or her tale, and the reader discovers that there are certain connections among them. Each character has a distinct personality: Harrison is angry, Stan can’t stop talking about his horrible experience, Greta is silent until almost the end, and Martin is clearly scared to death, and is afraid to take off his “frames.”
But the character of Barbara was the one I connected with the most, emotionally. She’s a wife and a mother of two boys, but she feels so distant and apart from them that it made me terribly sad. Her scars are literally bone deep and she can’t escape them.
You’ll definitely need a strong stomach for this story. Gregory describes each character’s ordeals in Technicolor blood and guts, and even though I’m not usually squeamish when it comes to descriptive violence, I have to admit several scenes in this book made me queasy. But in between these horrors are lovely human moments when the characters connect with each other.
One thing that I’m still puzzling over is the narration of this story. It’s clear in the beginning that someone in the group is narrating: “There were six of us in the beginning. Three men and two women, and Dr. Sayer. Jan, though some of us never learned to call her by her first name.” And yet—the narrator is never identified, and comments on all six characters. It could be first person omniscient point of view, but I’m not really sure because I’ve never read a story quite like this. If anyone has read this book and knows what I’m talking about, I’d love to hear what you think. It’s driving me crazy!
I was also a bit confused by the ending. I honestly expected more of an “ah ha!” moment at the end, because the lead-up was so good. But it sort of fizzled out for me, with an odd connection between two of the characters that came out of nowhere, and an ominous message that foreshadows more bad times ahead.
But otherwise I loved this story. Gregory is an author I’ll be watching for sure, and I’m all primed now to read Harrison Squared, which tells the story of Harrison’s early life. I’m also wondering if Gregory will ever write back-stories for some of the other characters. I’d love to read more about Martin and Barbara. (But not Stan or Greta. Their stories would be too much for me, I think!) For readers who aren’t afraid to dig deep into the horrors of the human condition, We Are All Completely Fine is a must read.
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