You know how sometimes you see a book on the bargain table at the local branch of your big name bookstore chain and it’s like $4.99 (in Canada that’s a deal) and has a compelling cover. And you already have a giant TBR stack, but you just can’t help yourself and you buy it anyway. And then you take it home and put it on the shelf and totally forget about it? Yeah, that’s what happened to me with The Replacement. But then I ended up reading a couple of Yovanoff’s other books (also picked up because of the cover – she’s got gorgeous covers guys), and absolutely loving them. That’s when I remembered that this book was sitting on my shelf. So, I put it on my TBR where it promptly got set aside again for my ridiculous library compulsion. But the other day, I was sorting through my dud pile of library books (seriously, nothing I’d signed out was worth reading) and decided it was time to tackle my own shelf. I finally, finally picked up The Replacement. It was the right choice. I probably could have powered through it in a day, but it’s been hot like the sun here so my reading was dispersed between chunks of trying to cool off and doing other things to distract me from the heat.
Honestly, the damp, dreary setting of the book kind of helped distract from the crazy heat. The world in which the book is set is beautiful. Dark and chilling and beautiful. Now, I’m aware Yovanoff’s writing is divisive. She has a very distinct, minimalist style that people seem to either love or hate. I love it. I like that there isn’t a lot of fooferah, and yet we still get all the things we need to know. Exactly the right amount of description to make the world real but still allow us to fill in the details for ourselves. It’s like the perfect scary movie. They never give you too much. The unseen is the most unsettling. I could absolutely picture Gentry in my mind. I could walk the streets with Mackie as he tries to figure out what is happening to his life.
On its face, this is a supernatural story about a town that survives on the good will, and blood sacrifice) of the monsters that live beneath it. It would make an excellent episode of Supernatural (the early years, when they still did things like that). But underneath, it’s more than that. It’s about searching for yourself in a place you’re not sure that you belong. About the ways we bend and break ourselves in order to become what we’re ‘supposed’ to be. The writing style serves to emphasize this pursuit. There are moments in the book where we get very simple, straight forward, I did this, then this, then this. Normally, that would annoy the bejesus out of me, but it works here. It works to highlight Mackie’s need to be human. It grounds his search for the normal. His normalcy has been the driving factor in his life. The one thing his parents have drilled into him above all else. Be quiet. Be normal. Be absolutely unexceptional. Mackie knows he’s not normal. Not entirely human. His family knows it. So do other people. But it’s not something you talk about in Gentry. If no one ever points it out, nothing will ever have to change and everything will stay good. It’s the town secret. That sometimes, people aren’t people. So Mackie has to supress. He has to be straight and narrow and laced up. He can’t draw attention. And if he just does that, over and over and over again, he might get a pass. He might get to be the thing everyone wants to be – accepted.
Mackie’s struggle is for people to not notice that he’s not human, but this hiding is something everyone does – especially in high school. Adopting a persona and sticking with it, because that’s the thing people expect from you. Even if it’s not who you are, or who you want to be, or if you’ve never tried to figure out who you really are. And if you do your persona well enough, they won’t let you change. For some people, that’s all they want. We see this in some of the popular kid characters in the book. Alice and her friends. The kids everyone wants to be friends with (even when they’re dicks who vandalize your locker). Mackie spends a good portion of the book pining for Alice. But he’s sure he can’t have her. Why would someone like her want someone like him? So when she starts to show interest in him, he’s a little leery. But it seems like Alice might be genuine in her interest. Here’s this boy who, no matter how hard he tries, is a little abnormal. He sparks her interest. If things were going normally, this would be exactly what Mackie wants, but this is Gentry, normal is never really normal. He’s started to notice Tate – the weird girl. The girl who wants to be different. That points out that their town is broken. That kisses Mackie and then goes back to demanding truths from him. So Mackie does the normal thing. He goes after Alice. And when he finally kisses her, she is literal poison, well her tongue ring is, and he ends up almost dying. Not super subtle, Ms. Yovanoff, but effective. Don’t do shit just because it’s the cool thing to do. Do what/who you want to do because it’s honest. Otherwise, it just might destroy you. In a way, these two girls represent the larger town. Alice is the happy, pretty surface. The place where everything works the way it’s supposed to and everything is good. And when things don’t go well, it’s the fault of the challenger, not the system. Tate is dark and hidden and doesn’t take any shit from anyone. She does what she needs to, even if it’s not looked on favorably. Alice is the town. Tate is the underground – the thing Mackie actually needs.
Mackie is dying. Slowly. Painfully. He is dying. No, this isn’t where the book turns into a YA drama about cancer or whatnot. He’s just simply not supposed to have lived this long. Things like him don’t. They aren’t meant to be part of the larger world. Because they aren’t loved. They aren’t accepted. They wither and die without affection. But they do it in a physical way, not the psychological death that happens to humans who need these same things. But Mackie’s survived because of Emma, the sister who held his hand from the second he was put in the crib to replace the original Malcom. And for a long time, that’s all he needed. But let’s be honest, he’s not human. He’s allergic to iron. There’s iron everywhere. The book starts at a damn blood drive. It’s actually pretty entertaining. And his father is a minister. Mackie can’t ever get involved in family stuff because – no consecrated ground for him. Everything in his life is a challenge. If you just read Mackie on the surface, he comes across a little emo – what with all the depression, but if you look a little deeper, he is a product of his environment. If you’ve been told your entire life to just be normal. To not be noticed. How would you ever be comfortable enough in your own skin to come across as anything other than a sad, depressing mess?
Eventually, Mackie meets the people who can save him. The underground people. The Monsters. The ones who will not name themselves in order to keep their power. The things that are always in the background of this strange little town. The dead ones who can only come play at Halloween. And the ones who are front and centre to accept the praise and adoration that keeps their race alive. And no one can talk about them. Because talking about them openly will break the spell that makes them special. Will break the town. In the book, these are beings to be feared. The ones that live in superstition and darkness. But if we just tilt our vision a bit, they’re actually pretty similar to the people we call celebrities. Not all celebrities mind you, but the ones that thrive in the spotlight. The ones who draw all the attention and suck it in and overshadow other, bigger issues. The ones that keep the machine chugging. That distract us from living our own lives. Gentry has always allowed their creatures to exist, for the terrible things that they do to happen, in order to keep their town charmed and golden. To be better than everything around it. To never suffer the effects of recession or drought or anything that destroys other the cities. Sound familiar? Maybe like a city that shines golden on the coast. Who keeps chugging along regardless of what is happening elsewhere. That has a group of people whose lifestyle is so foreign from our own that we stare at it in awe. That we throw our money at it to keep it alive. That somehow becomes the most important thing to keep alive…
Now, I’m not saying that this was Yovanoff’s intended message. That Gentry is a direct reflection of Hollywood. In fact, it was a bit of a tangent that started while I was writing this. But that’s the joy of reading. It’s never one thing (at least not in a good book). Authorial intent is something we throw so much weight into, and yeah, what the author was feeling or thinking when they wrote something is important, but it’s not the only thing. Personal experience will always influence the way a reader reads. And for me, this is what The Replacement is about – false idolatry to the detriment of self. The hope that if we idolize and emulate the right people in the right way for the right amount of time that we will become the right thing. The all encompassing need to push down the things that make us different. To hide the ugly. To never really get to know the people around us as anything more than surface. And how dangerous that is. How very very dangerous it is to raise an entire generation that never really knows what’s going on and expect them to become real people.
When Mackie’s finally had enough of all the rules, he finally becomes real. Whether that’s real human or real monster or just real is his to decide. No longer accepting the status quo is the only way to develop. To advance. To be more than just normal. I think the message that best sums up the book is when Mackie’s friend tells him that it doesn’t matter who that baby in the crib was. The only person he’s ever known is this Mackie and this is the real one and the one he likes. As long as we’re honest to ourselves about who we really are, we win.