Wool (1-5): Review

When I sat down to review this book, I stared at a blank page for a long time before words started to flow. I wanted this book to suck. To explain why, first indulge me a little of the history behind this book. Hugh Howey is a first-time novelist. Hugh Howey is a self-published (or at least was) first-time novelist. Hugh Howey is now a Sunday Times bestseller self-published first-time novelist. I wanted it to suck because I selfishly wanted its success to be luck. Right time, right place. Lucky gives hope to authors like me trying to break into this industry.

Take my word for it when I say Wool does not suck and luck had nothing to do with its success. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s the best book I’ve read in a long time. I know when a book is exceptional because I become obsessed. I find myself recommending it to random people in the supermarket. The last time I had that feeling was Harry Potter No. 7.

On the cover of the version I own are two testimonials. The Guardian proclaims “Frightening, intriguing and mysterious… it’s easy to see why Wool captured readers so quickly” while the Sunday Times announces “The next Hunger Games“. With the former I agree on all points. The latter I think may have been at the magic mushrooms. The Hunger Games is a present-tense, non-stop, young adult action adventure. Wool is a passive-tense dystopian novel of epic vision with a vicious undertone of social commentary. Both are good, brillant in fact, but to liken them to one another does neither justice.

It’s actually hard to classify Wool into a genre, something I’ve noticed when reading other reviews online. It’s a little bit of everything. It’s woven thick with conspiracy, it’s a mystery, it’s a crime novel, it’s action and it’s emotional. Some sell it as Juliette Nichols’ story. I disagree. Unlike Larsson (who I reviewed recently), this is not a book about characters so much as a book about a world, a set of values, a twisted new reality. It’s an examination of human nature. In places it’s bitter, cynical and downright hard-to-stomach because Howey doesn’t shy away. He writes real people. Not since Lord of the Flies has there been a book (at least that I’ve read) that has been so brutal in its examination of the human race when they are faced with life or death. Certainly, do not pick up this book expecting to come away smiling. Don’t get me wrong, there are some points that will make you grin, or even giggle to yourself as Howey’s turn of phrase catches you – but this is not a happy book. It’s gritty and uncompromising. And that’s what makes it brilliant.

It’s also unpredictable. Wool was surprisingly not written in one go. At least, it was not released as such but I suspect the author knew exactly where it was headed. I would actually love to sit down and chat with Hugh Howey about how preplanned it was when the calls came for more and how much was new extrapolations. Because Wool does not read like a book made up as it progressed. Indeed, it has a neatness to it that would make JK Rowling (who can continue the family tree of all her characters post book 7 – that’s pre-planning for you) proud. Wool will have you catching your breath as it jumps from plot twist to plot twist but it does so plausible. You never roll your eyes and think ‘well there was a plot convenience’ or sigh and think ‘only in a book’. It feels real. It feels like it’s happening and that’s what will keep you turning the pages right to the end. You don’t see it coming but you understand it once it does. Like an onion, Howey pulls away the skin of his world one layer at a time until you arrive gasping to the very centre of everything.

In terms of social commentary, I suspect Howey both has a great respect but also a great suspicion over the IT industry. This book is often likened to 1984 and not unjustly so. Again, these are two very different books but the messages they send are actually remarkably aligned. He is clever in how he uses the often slow movie prose to slowly shape your opinions on matters you weren’t even aware you were thinking about. And what I find even more alarming is how close to truth a lot of the issues he raises are.

Character wise, this book is full of fun surprises. No one is a ‘classic’ character. Arguably Juliette is the closest, but even here Howey has given her such a rich, believable history that she seems real. No one is written to be universally liked or indeed disliked. Indeed, the character of Jahns is written exceedingly cleverly, Howey using different point of views to present a character in a negative and then positive light.

There is a lot of discussion around the title of this book. A lot of reviewers found it ‘odd’ or ‘inexplicable’ with ‘no link to the book itself’. To me, I think the title sums up the book. It is incredibly clever. If you only read the surface of this book, then yes, the title seems spurious. But to me, Wool is a perfect metaphor for the novel. Not only does Howey regularly use long metaphors of wool relation in the prose, particularly with Jahns, but it also links to the running issue of the cleaning that is central to the book. Also, for me, this book is entirely about a society whose had the wool pulled over their eyes and the characters’ struggle to remove that wool and see for the first time. I might be on my own on this one, but I say, well done Mr Howey, clever title. And one you are unlikely to forget.

I loved this book (as you might be able to tell from the glowing prose above) but for one thing. I wish I hadn’t read the last ten pages. For me, the ending just didn’t fit. Such a complex, original, twisted world doesn’t seem justified by such a cliche, uninventive ending. I know more has now been written on either end of the novel’s timeline so perhaps that makes up for it but I just felt utterly let down. So much could have happened but it just didn’t. It leaves a bitter taste on the end of a remarkable novel.

Wool is clever, unique and imagination-grabbing. It is a true page-turner. I think I read it in 24 hours. It will keep you going, making you think and I truly think is a fair rival to 1984 in its dystopian nature and commentary on modern civilisation. Despite the ending.

Rating: 10-10: Even with a lame ending, this is a stunning book and represents hope to a lot of writers out there.

Favourite (5) Quotes: “Don’t figure on being nothing else but dead one day.”

“This was not a remembrance of the past; it was a future that had never happened.”

“We are born, we are shadows, we cast shadows of our own and then we are gone.”

“What we do going forward defines who we are.”

“We are not the people who made this world [..] but it’s up to us to survive it.”

Favourite Character: I truly don’t have one. This book is about all its characters, not one in particular.

Least Favourite Character: Lukas. He just got on my nerves a bit.