From the moment of his birth, Elliot’s life has been governed by fear of almost everything, even of his own fear — a beast that holds him prisoner in his room. The beast is kept at bay, though not eliminated, with a daily regimen of pills. But on Christmas Eve, a mix-up at the pharmacy threatens to unleash the beast full force, and his mother must venture out in a raging snowstorm to a store that should be only minutes away. Hours later, when she still hasn’t returned, Elliot sees no choice but to push through his terror, leave the house, and hunt for her. What happens if the last of his medication wears off and the beast starts scratching at the doors of his mind? Everyone has a breaking point — will Elliot come to his?
- Title: Born Scared
- Author: Kevin Brooks
- Publisher: Candlewick Press
- ISBN: 0763695653
- Publication Date: September 11, 2018
- For Ages: 12+
- Category: Young Adult
- Spooky-Scary or Spooky-Fun? ☠️ Scary.
- Content Warning: Anxiety, mental health
I’d like to thank Candlewick Press for providing an advance copy via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Kevin Brooks definitely understands anxiety. His main character Elliot has an extreme fear of…well, everything, so when he has to venture out alone during a snowstorm to refill his anxiety medication, the mere act of starting the journey is a lot tougher for him than it would be for most people. Even though his case is an exceptional one, I have to admit that I recognized myself quite a bit in Elliot’s characterization. I’m not sure how much of this review will resonate with people who haven’t lived with anxiety, but I’ll do my best to explain it.
Elliot says that he has a feeling of timelessness, as if he is always living in both the past and the future but never existing in the present. For someone who constantly obsesses over past failures (whether real or imagined) and worries about possible future calamities, this feeling is all too familiar. When you are consumed with thoughts of the past and the future, there is no time left to live in the here and now. Elliott catastrophizes — in other words, assumes the worst possible outcome in every situation — and becomes robotic when his anxiety level maxes out. At one point his brain short circuits to the point that he can no longer feel any emotions, and he tells someone that he’s “already dead.”
This is not a particularly spooky book — there are no ghosts or demons or monsters — but it is scary. The suspense is tight (though I did have to pause a time or two to wonder when this kid was going to catch a break) and the story moves quickly. With that said, there were several moments when I wondered if Brooks was taking the St. Elsewhere route with this book, as Elliot is fascinated with a snow globe his mother gave him and seems to have visions within it. The feeling of timelessness mentioned above comes into play with this snowglobe motif, with its single moment suspended forever in time. There’s also a touch of The Shining in there, specifically the scene in the film where Jack looms over the model of the hedge maze in the hotel lobby and the camera slowly zooms in to show Wendy and Danny walking through the actual hedge maze outside. That sense of menace and claustrophobia permeates the book and propels the action toward its wild finale.
Now that I have a little distance from the book, it feels like a grueling experience, something that you survive rather than something you enjoy. Brooks really puts his main character through the ringer, both physically and psychologically, almost like a YA version of Misery. I don’t want anyone walking away from this book thinking that there’s a cure for anxiety or that people with anxiety disorders should face their fears and essentially be thrown to the wolves in order to find some inner reserve of strength. Trust me, people who live with anxiety are already plenty strong.
I honestly can’t say if this reading experience would be more enjoyable for people who don’t suffer from anxiety disorders, but what I can say is that this is a well-written, compelling story that may help people understand what it’s like to live with mental illness. This book was hard to put down, but as someone who understands more than I care to about Elliot’s terror-stricken world, I’m not sure I’d want to pick it up again.
Being hard to read and being a good book aren’t mutually exclusive. I give this book 3.5 out of 5 coffins.