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Book review: <i>Lullaby</i> by Chuck Palahniuk

They say that the first sentence of a novel is the most important; most people who pick a book up in a bookstore will head straight to the first page to see what the sentence is as a judgment of whether to read it or not. And I tell you, Chuck Palahniuk is the master of the first sentence. And paragraph, for that matter. You are completely sucked in before you know what’s what.

The story

Helen Hoover Boyle owns a real estate company and makes a tidy living out of re-selling the same haunted houses over and over again. And she has a secret.

Carl Streator also has a secret in his past. He is a journalist covering stories about cot death; he attends five call outs by ambulance men. And there is a coincidence that he just can’t ignore. The same lullaby book open to the same page is present at all the deaths—the same lullaby he read to his child and wife just before they died, and the same lullaby Helen Hoover Boyle read to her son before he went into a coma.

Streator finds his knowledge of the rhyme soon getting out of control; he can kill just by thinking the rhyme. So he enlists the help of Helen, her witch assistant Mona, and Mona’s boyfriend Oyster to track down the errant books and destroy them. However, everyone in the car has different ideas about what should be done with the power they have, and when the original grimoire is discovered, the stakes rise and it’s everyone for themselves...

The style

Lullaby is written in Chuck Palahniuk’s trademark sparse prose, and I don’t feel like I did the plot much justice because there is a lot more going on symbolically in Lullaby than is revealed in a straight plot synopsis. As I mentioned above, Palahniuk’s beginning is rock solid and quickly sucks you in by introducing several seemingly unconnected occurrences and things and then drawing them together later. While he doesn’t do much in the way of suspense or twists in Lullaby - I suspected what was happening pretty early on and wasn’t proven wrong - the story is still compelling and addictive because even though you may know how it ends you really want to know how it goes about getting there.

Lullaby is written in the first person from the point of view of Carl Streator. Carl’s narration is strong; his personality is present even when he is narrating an event he wasn’t present at. Palahniuk uses a cyclic narrative technique, whereby he intersperses a primarily linear narrative about Helen, Mona, Oyster and himself from the beginning of his discovery with italacized passages about what he is doing in the present, after these events have taken place. The narrative also gradually reveals the entire secret in his past, as well as other hidden details about the other characters.

Palahniuk manages to express the supernatural in Lullaby, similar to that in Diary, in a manner that is both shocking and commonplace, which is far superior to your standard run of the mill horror. While the supernatural challenges what the reader considers natural, the characterisation and the story essentially allow the overarching themes to take precedence in the telling, rather than the old “Oh my God how weird!” reading. In the very beginning, Streator tells the reader:

It wasn’t a miracle. It was magic. These aren’t saints. They’re spells.

So we would be shocked if it were a miracle, but since it’s just magic... I’m not sure how well I’m doing describing all this, and I feel like I could go on for longer... suffice it to say, it’s a good book. Oh, and I forgot to mention. It’s funny. In surprising places. Okay, I’m really done now.

Who is this book for?

Well, next time you’re going on a plane/bus/holiday, and you’re choosing which Steven King/Dean Koontz to take with you, do yourself a HUGE favour and take Lullaby instead. Seriously. And if you’re a Chuck Palahniuk fan, hey, you’ve probably already read it.

If you like this book, you would also like...

More Chuck Palahniuk, obviously!

In short

Title: Lullaby
Author: Chuck Palahniuk
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385504470
Year published: 2002
Pages: 272
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, Horror, Supernatural fiction
Review Type: