If you haven’t heard of Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (no relation as far as I know to Marian Keyes) then don’t worry as neither had I. However since it became the latest choice for book group after Jackie’s choosing I found out that actually this is rather a cult novel. First published as a short story in 1959 and then rewritten in novel form becoming and award winning classic, such a classic infact it has been turned into a film and even a musical in the late 1970’s starring Michael Crawford. Who knew, the things you learn. What about the book though, would this work for me as it does come under the science fiction umbrella?
The Algernon in ‘Flowers for Algernon’ is actually a mouse and though isn’t the main character is certainly pivotal to the plot. This is no ordinary mouse as Algernon has undergone some experimental surgery that means he is a super intelligent mouse. It is from this successful operation that the people and researchers at Beekman have decided to try this out on a human and through this we meet our narrator Charlie Gordon a 32 year old cleaner in a bakery with an IQ of 68 who is mentally disabled. It is Charlie’s diaries or ‘progress reports’ from just before the operation and its effects afterwards that we read as the story unfolds.
I have to admit that when I started reading this book and knowing it was science fiction I just didn’t think this would be a book for me. It didn’t help that the first part of the book is written phonetically as Charlie cant spell. I was wrong though as after getting used to Charlie’s initial bad grammar and spelling (which does pass) and following his journey as he changed and saw the world change around him I was gripped. There were two reasons for this. The first was reading his personal history how his parents couldn’t cope, how his sister hated him and how people picked on him, something he hadn’t realised before his level of intelligence was altered and makes for quite heart breaking reading and looks at the way people with mental disabilities are treated in some cases. There is also quite a twist in the tale as Algernon starts to behave oddly with wild mood swings and his intelligence deteriorates, what will happen to them both?
It’s such a though provoking read that I am sure book group will have been filled with fascinating discussion (I am posting quite a bit ahead at the moment so we haven’t met as I type). What will we make of the two women who come into Charlie’s life, his teacher Alice and his crazy fabulous neighbour Fay, and their treatment of him? What was Keyes trying to say in this book, and where did the inspiration come from? Do we all feel we have been able to gain additional insight into what it is like to have learning and mental disabilities? I know I feel like I have made to think about the subject more than any other book has made me do. What about the ending, did anyone else cry a bit… I shall say no more about it (and don’t anyone else give anything away); they could be happy or sad tears you will have to read the book to find out.
It is books like this, which I know had I seen this in the book shop I would have not read, that show why book groups can be so great. Has it changed my not too high opinion of science fiction? Yes in a way, I have realised now its not that I don’t like science fiction (though no Star Wars or Trek on any account) it’s more that I am daunted by it. If I can find more science fiction that hits me like this I can see myself becoming much more of a fan of the genre.