Rating: 5 stars (zero hesitation)
Category: Science fiction, Emotional
Synopsis: Algernon is no ordinary lab mouse – scientists have performed a pioneering experiment to exponentially increase his intelligence. Charlie is a man with learning difficulties working as a cleaner in a bakery. He longs for a higher IQ, believing it will make him feel more equal to those around him and is to become the experiment’s first human test subject. It opens up a world previously closed to him, but Charlie soon learns that increasing IQ is too simplistic an approach to solve the complexities of human emotions and relationships. With Algernon’s behaviour also becoming more erratic, Charlie’s future looks increasingly uncertain…
Why I Read It
I have mentioned previously on Miscellany Pages my prejudice against science fiction. Too often, I find the genre crosses a line of “weirdness” that alienates me. However, a friend at book club was so enthusiastic about Flowers for Algernon that I felt I had no other choice but to put aside my snobby sci-fi misgivings. I am so glad I did.
The unusual title of Flowers for Algernon immediately marks the book as something unique. I love titles that make me feel uncertain to start with but become clear and give more meaning towards the ending of the story. The unusual way in which the novel is written as a series of progress reports, from Charlie’s point of view, also created a feeling that I would enjoy the book as something fresh and new.
Far from the world of cold, hard science, Keyes writes in a beautiful style reminiscent of poetry and art. This is one of my favourite quotations, in which Charlie describes the experience of making love:
The universe was exploding, each particle away from the next, hurtling us into dark and lonely space, eternally tearing us away from each other – child out of the womb, friend away from friend, moving from each other, each through his own pathway toward the goal-box of solitary death. But this was the counterweight, the act of binding and holding.
The sci-fi plot is far less central to the power of this novel than the ideas is allows Keyes to explore. There are so many ethical issues surrounding the experiment to increase intelligence, and it made me consider the concept in a way I never had before.
- Can we measure intelligence?
- Can we even truly define it?
- Does our society place too much value on intelligence?
Many other issues are also explored in the story, particularly through the achingly sad exploration of loneliness. Charlie is alienated in so many ways, both before and after his operation, and at times his treatment is a harrowing example of the human capacity for cruelty. This made me question whether he was happier before the experiment, when he remained blissfully unaware of this cruelty. It is moving that he learns the value of human connection at the moments when it seems most to be slipping away from him.
Factors I normally look for in the ending of a book include how surprising or unpredictable it is. The ending of this story is neither, yet a sense of inevitability somehow enhances its power. My engagement did not waver for a moment – a testament to the allure of Keyes’ writing.
The way in which readers can only view the story through Charlie’s eyes adds to the absorbing way in which his character develops into an almost entirely different person throughout the novel. He forms very few new relationships, but those present from the beginning become irrevocably altered by his sudden spike in IQ. The complexity of these relationships, particularly between Charlie and his former teacher Alice, for me became the most enjoyable part of the story.
I use the light term ‘enjoyable’ advisedly. Flowers for Algernon is an intense, unrelenting emotional experience that made me shed genuine tears. I have never read a science fiction novel with so much heart.
But I know now there’s one thing you’ve all overlooked: intelligence and education that hasn’t been tempered by human affection isn’t worth a damn.
Read if: you want to be entranced by a science fiction novel with a big heart.
Cover image courtesy of Goodreads.
Have you read Flowers for Algernon? Is there a book that has removed your prejudice against a particular genre? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments – I would love to hear from you!