Like any self-respecting science fiction fan, I’ve seen Flowers for Algernon on countless ‘best of…’ lists. I’ve owned the Gollancz SF Masterworks version for a good couple of years and have passed over it so many times. And so begins another review that kicks off with me chastising myself for allowing such a great book to languish on my shelves for so long.
I loved Flowers for Algernon. It tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68 who sweeps the floors and makes deliveries at a local bakery. He is chosen as the first human research subject by doctors trialling a new operation that will turn even those with limited intelligence into geniuses, following in the footsteps of a white mouse, the eponymous Algernon. The novel charts Charlie’s journey from his selection, his “rise” to genius and beyond. As with all the best science fiction, that story is only part of why the book is so ruddy good; the rest is in the questions that it raises and forces you to think about. In this case, it’s whether ignorance really is bliss and whether we should ever really meddle with our nature (which is a question that I expect is as relevant in 2019 as it was in 1966, if it isn’t actually more relevant).
And even with all of that, what really makes Flowers for Algernon that little bit more special is the writing. Charlie’s story is relayed in his own words through progress reports that he writes and submits to the doctors supervising him. The spelling and grammar in the early entries is dreadful and reading it is jarring but as Charlie’s intellect develops, so does his writing. In the early chapters, as a reader you can see Charlie being the butt of his colleagues’ jokes even where Charlie doesn’t. The painful dawning of realisation was wonderfully written, as is the confusion that Charlie experiences as his intelligence outstrips his emotional maturity. It’s clever and sensitive and outstanding.
The only reason I didn’t give it five stars was that there was a middle portion of the novel that I found a little bit repetitive. Perhaps only 30-40 pages or so but enough that there was a noticeable slow down and I got that slightly fidgety feeling I get when I’m reading something that is going a little rogue. It picked back up relatively quickly but it made what would otherwise have been perfect just really bloody great.
The ending broke my heart and I cried quietly into my paperback through the final few pages and for a good few minutes after. You know what’s coming for a while and I thought that I was prepared but no. Even with the build up, it still somehow manages to sneak up on you. I’d defy you to read the last few chapters without at least a few tears in your eyes. Thinking about it now nearly a week later still makes my heart clench.
Overall: I’m so glad that I finally picked this up. Flowers for Algernon is a showcase of masterful writing and very moving. I’m not surprised Gollancz included the novel in its Masterworks series and I can’t wait to pick up some more of the novels chosen to sit alongside it.
Date finished: 09 April 2019
Pictured edition published: by Gollancz in 2000
Pop Sugar Challenge Prompt: N/A