Plot: Susan Wingate's How the Deer Moon Hungers examines, with admirable complexity and humanity, the process of grief, healing, and forgiveness following a tragic accident – and the tragedies that follow it. Teen MacKenzie finds herself institutionalized after her sister is killed by a drunk driver, and MacKenzie is caught with a friend's marijuana. Wingate cleverly structures this harrowing story to reflect the seven stages of grief, and the process of forgiveness, and her urgent, ambitious prose lays bare for readers MacKenzie's heart. That humanity and ambition, though, works against the narrative momentum when Wingate switches perspectives to MacKenzie's parents, to the drunk driver who killed MacKenzie's sister, or to the corrections officer who preys on young women. The book's first half, centered on the accident, also circles away from MacKenzie to show readers scenes of deputies questioning townspeople about the crash, examining in great detail the circumstances of a tragedy when readers will mostly be interested in its impact. One of the book's themes is the mind's difficulty in piecing together precisely what has happened in traumatic events, so these scenes have thematic justification, but they offer little suspense or insight, as they venture far from the heart of the story.
Prose/Style: Wingate writes crackling dialogue and is adept at immersing readers in her protagonists' flow of thought. Scenes of MacKenzie's pain, rage, and confusion pulse with power. The prose, though, too often bucks from the author's control, especially in moments of poetic description. There's no doubt that the author is a talented wordsmith, but readers will too often find themselves laboring to make sense of typos and imprecise prose.
Originality: Wingate's scenario and treatment of it both stand as unique. Her dedication to the emotional lives of all her characters imbues the material with a rare humanity.
Character Development: MacKenzie proves a rich, fascinating protagonist, especially as she fights to hold on to her core of self as she's brutalized or locked in solitary confinement. Her willingness to forgive and to recover the full truth of the day of the tragedy are both moving, engaging traits. The occasional chapters from other characters' perspectives also reveal fresh depths and surprises, even as the story of MacKenzie proves more compelling than those asides.
Date Submitted: April 27, 2020
Wingate’s top-notch worldbuilding skills easily draw readers into her well-plotted, often brutal story. The graphic descriptions of sexual abuse may trigger survivors, but Wingate pulls no punches in fully delivering the horrors of prison rape (committed both by those in authority and by prisoners), urging readers to empathize with and understand Mac as well as anyone sentenced to that traumatic environment. She allows readers to experience events from multiple characters’ perspectives—including Tessa’s as she’s dying—but the tale is primarily told in Mac’s pained and ultimately resigned voice.
The lyrical prose will enchant readers, and the searing plot twists and a surprising yet emotionally satisfying wrap-up command close attention. Survivors of dysfunctional families and traumatic, tragic events will find many of their experiences reflected. Though Mac is a teen, her story may be too emotionally devastating for many readers close to her in age, but adult and new adult readers will fall headlong into it. No one who picks up this heartrending story will emerge from it unchanged or unmoved.
Takeaway: This powerful and poignant novel is ideal for new adult readers seeking to immerse themselves in rage, grief, and pain.
Great for fans of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
How the Deer Moon Hungers by Susan Wingate wins the best fiction award in the 2020 Pacific Book Award.