Christopher and his mom are starting over; just the two of them in a new town. Despite his learning difficulties and inability to keep words in place on a page, he tries to make the best of second grade. Embarrassed at his struggles to learn, and bullied regularly, there’s no doubt that Christopher’s young life is filled with challenges.
One day, everything changes. Seized by a sudden and inexplicable desire to enter the woods near his home, Christopher disappears for six days. On his return, everything is different. Christopher has no recollection of the time away other than the presence of a nice man who helped him home. In addition to this apparent amnesia, Christopher and his mother realise that after the woods, he suddenly has no problems reading or with math – he seems to have been imbued with instant academic brilliance.
As Christopher and his mom try to come to terms with these changes, she can’t but worry about him. Her son, usually such an open boy, has become secretive, sneaky, and dedicated to building a treehouse in the woods at all costs. Led by the nice man, Christopher knows things that his mother does not. It is integral that he follows the man’s instructions, or the horrors contained in the imaginary world will break though to the real one.
There’s something incredibly sinister and disconcerting about having such a young protagonist in such a mature story, and all the more so given the enormous emotional, physical and psychological trials he experiences. In addition to the cruelty of subjecting a young child to a narrative filled with mental illness, religious fanaticism, and a horde of adult taboos, it creates somewhat of a barrier between reader and story. That a not-yet eight-year-old child can handle such immense darkness with such grace, selflessness and maturity screams unrealistic, regardless of the supernatural or preternatural cause. However, the brilliance of this risky move is that we see Chbosky’s world through eyes not yet dulled by cynicism or society – every event (no matter how unbelievable) is taken at face value – through the eyes of a child, anything is possible.
Regardless of one’s desire to spare the protagonist from what he experiences, Imaginary Friend is completely absorbing, and completely disturbing. It is a feat of literary prowess, with a philosophical backbone that lays a foundation for exploration, reflection, and discussion of so many topics society deems unbelievable, impossible, or improbable. Imaginary Friend speaks our sense of normalcy – of what is right, what is wrong, and what is not discussed.
Perhaps Chbosky realized that only child-sized feet could navigate the literary minefields of morality, religion, mental illness, and societal degradation. Whatever the reason, this book is powerful, dark, distressing, and brilliant, and no review could do justice to such a layered story without giving too much away, or flattening a larger than life narrative.
Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky is published by Orion Fiction, a Hachette company, and is available in South Africa from Jonathan Ball Publishers.