"The Boy with the Spider Face" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Crystal Lake Publishing
Written by AJ Franks
2021, 119 pages, Fiction
Released on 26th November 2021
I have mixed feelings about The Boy with the Spider Face, which held my attention in its early stages, but I found myself with unsatisfactorily answered questions as the plot progressed. On one level, the story involves several big themes, including homophobia, racism and bullying, but the manner it is framed is preachy and rather heavy-handed. Readers do not need to have it spelt out that racism is bad or that homophobia is unacceptable, but this book seems to do this. On occasions, I was unsure whether this is aimed at adults or YA, as much of it has the maturity of a teen novel with a school-age protagonist until the ending, which is more adult orientated.
Jeff Pritchet is a fifteen-year-old boy with a face which looks like a spider and because of this he is mercilessly bullied and has no friends. He has parents who have accepted him for who he is, but he is incredibly lonely and a very sad figure. The author’s message is obviously “we are all the same on the inside” or something of that ilk, but Jeff’s classmates do not see it that way and torment him viciously with calls of “freak” and worse. In a few scenes the prejudice is widely over the top and the lack of compassion is hard to believe. However, things take an upturn when a new student arrives at the school, Aarav Jain, who sees beyond the spider face, and the boys become close. This part of the story is 100% YA and adult readers may find it all rather simplistic with the well-intentioned but obvious messages, and it would be better targeted at a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old where the ‘coming-of-age’ vibe would work more successfully.
The racism theme in the story is also clunkily handled, mainly because it is given no depth or proper explanation. Aarav Jain is not a white American and that leads to problems, but this part of the story goes unexplored and considering the conflict it leads to, is a major let-down, with the reader deserving better than dismissive “we’re not like them” comments, which are taken no further. If this was a genuine YA novel, this key part of the narrative would have been explored in some detail and neither does it work as a trashy monster novel; in some ways it falls between the two posts.
The Boy with the Spider Face generally plays it straight and could have done with a sense of humour instead of the relentless bullying and preachy messages. One magnificent example would be Skullface Boy by Chad Lutzke, about a teenager with an external skull, which is not only hilarious but has a brilliant lead character (who does not feel sorry for himself all the time) and is easy to love in a way in Jeff Pritchet is not. Another cracker in the same area is Jeff Strand’s Fangboy which made me smile from start to finish. Neither of these two other books attempt to portray a serious message in the same manner The Boy with the Spider Face does and are all the better for it.
Jeff soon discovers when he gets agitated or emotional then he may well have more of a spider face and the story heads into darker territory with a few nods to Kafka’s masterpiece The Metamorphosis and explores how human spiders might go through their own type of puberty! This is one of the strongest sequences in the story, with Jeff exploring and experimenting with these new skills. Perhaps the story is too ambitious, covering too many ideas over a relatively short page length and would have been better with some deeper exploration on the themes I have already mentioned. It also hangs back from becoming a full-blown creature feature, but does cut loose with a vicious, gory, and over-the-top ending. I have mixed feelings about the big finish, as it doesn’t sit comfortably with the tone of the rest of the novella. Were we supposed to feel sympathy or empathy for Jeff? (I didn’t really.) Should we have been cheering him on? (I didn’t.) and overall, the whole thing left me cold.
Overall, The Boy with the Spider Face is a quick, unchallenging and easy read which passes a couple of hours and I am sure many readers will tap into the feelings of high school isolation and feeling different or uncomfortable in their own skin. If you do not think too deeply, it is passable company, but considering it tackles racism and homophobia, these are glossed over too lightly. The novella might have been asking the reader who the real monster is, but by the time you get to the end, the answer is somewhat garbled.
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