Jessica is an ex-child pageant queen with an awful memory. In fact, she can’t remember her childhood nearly at all outside of the pageants she participated in. The daughter of Dr. Clink, chair of the Boredom Studies department at a nameless Midwestern university, and Grethe Clink, a Norwegian beauty who hosts not-quite-Tupperware parties, Jessica has always had a strange life. It begins to get stranger when she starts waking up regularly with odd bruises and deduces she must be sleepwalking.
But when Jessica develops a series of gruesome crime scene photos while working at the university’s photography shop, she suddenly unlocks a jumbled chain of dreams (or are they memories?) that send her on a journey of self-discovery.
University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate Candice Wuehle (who was also raised in Iowa City) pulls out all the stops with this bizarre delight of a debut novel. Wuehle has released three collections of poetry, but Monarch is her first foray into fiction, melding true crime, ’90s culture, child beauty pageants and science fiction. There’s much to pique a reader’s interest.
As we follow Jessica through the novel, we are dipped into the worlds of both the mundane and the supernatural to raise questions about identity, memory and the connection between the two: Is identity something we form internally, or is it decided for us? How much control do we actually have over our lives?
In addition to these big questions, the book also poses plenty of opportunities to create stunning mental pictures. Wuehle’s poetic background rears its head consistently throughout the novel with beautiful descriptions: “If I listen to her albums now, they possess the polyphony of a whipped dessert, too sweet for teeth, too sugar for earth.” These descriptions take us into familiar underworlds and suburban hellscapes that come alive while reading. Her knack for abjection as well as short chapters with plenty of white space make Monarch a natural page-turner.
While Wuehle does an excellent job of sowing seeds of dysfunction and mystery throughout the novel, everything is pretty much wrapped neatly into little bows by the end, leaving us with no questions about where Jessica or the supporting characters end up. For a book that starts out very cryptically, it’s certainly a change of pace. By the same token, Jessica’s first-person narration guides us confidently through the chaos so even when the story gets complicated, it is never confusing.
These factors make the novel perfect for readers who love clean endings. Personally, I prefer both mystery and resolution. I like to balance on the edge of my seat throughout, but I also like to end the book with an idea of what happened to my favorite characters. Monarch turned out to be the perfect novel to keep me rapt for the two days I spent reading it, and I will be eagerly waiting for Wuehle’s next release.
This article was originally published in Little Village issues 305 and Central Iowa 001.