An Underrated Book Review: I'm Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
A Gripping Title and Disturbing Story
I don't remember how I stumbled across this book on Amazon, but the title immediately got my attention. Even before I read any reviews or a description, I knew I wanted to read this story. I imagined that this would be about the protagonist considering suicide, but even so, this story surprised me. Sometimes I would think I knew what was going to happen, but the writing always left me guessing. I do have to put a disclaimer here and say that there will be spoilers, so please do not read any further if you want to read this book and be surprised. If you have already read it and are wondering what to make of the surprising and bewildering conclusion, then this review is for you.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things is not as scary as it is disturbing. There were plenty of moments that made my pulse speed up as I read it in the middle of the night (probably not the best idea, on my part). However, the details that most disturbed me were in the astute descriptions by the narrator. Many of the events and characters in the story are unsettling, to say the least. There is not much in the way of bloody gore, and the only demons and monsters are the ones inside the character(s). In that sense, the story is a realistic one that is likely to stick with the reader for quite some time.
You Can't Fake a Thought
I'm thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It dominates. There's not much I can do about it. Trust me. It doesn't go away. It's there whether I like it or not. It's there when I eat. When I go to bed. It's there when I sleep. It's there when I wake up. It's always there. Always.
Jake once said, "Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can't fake a thought."
This is how the book opens. This entire passage leads us to believe that indeed the protagonist is considering the ultimate ending. Then we learn that the protagonist is a female on a road trip with her boyfriend. Their relationship is fairly new, and we learn that she is thinking about breaking up with him. The writing lured me into a false sense of security that I'm Thinking of Ending Things was only about a girl thinking about breaking up with her boyfriend. That was all. But whenever I looked at the art on the cover or re-read the first page, I knew there was much, much more to this...
Chilling Details, Woven Together Masterfully
There were a few different things that struck me as odd and reminded me that this was much more than a story about a road trip or breakup. There is an odd sense of disconnect between the two main characters. We know from the girlfriend's descriptions that Jake is intelligent, well-read, and works in a lab - of which he gives a descriptive, spoken virtual tour. We don't know much about the girlfriend, not even her name. Jake never does say her name. She recounts a few stories from her past throughout the novel, but we don't get a good sense of her history or who she was before Jake. Jake's background is also vague, but there are many more details about him than the girlfriend.
The pages between chapters tell a story of a janitor who took his own life. The story is told by others reacting to the death and how he was found, scrunched up in a closet with puncture wounds. Reading further, there are several clues as to who this is, but we are in the dark as to exactly how all the pieces connect until the very end.
Perhaps the most chilling part of the story, for me, was when Jake and his girlfriend arrived at the farm, and he gave her a tour of the barns before leading her inside the house. It is a cold night, and the animals are glazed over and unresponsive; some of the lambs are dead, but since it is freezing outside, no one is sure how long they have been there. Jake mentions that they used to have pigs, but they were too much work. When the girlfriend asks what happened to them, Jake hesitates before telling her the story. The pigs had been left alone, their food tossed into the pen, for several days until Jake's father went to check on them. They had been lying in the same spot for days. Upon moving one of the pigs, Jake's father saw that its stomach was infested with maggots.
"The pigs were literally being eaten alive," Jake said. "From the inside out. And you'd never really know if you just looked at them from afar. From a distance, they seemed content, relaxed."
I instantly noticed this as a metaphor for one who is depressed, or struggling with mental illness, and it becomes fatal. On the outside, we can look fine - normal. That is why it is so difficult to get people to take mental illness as seriously as physical illness, until it is too late. By the time Jake's father understood there was a serious problem, there was no choice but to put the pigs down.
Once Jake and the girlfriend go inside to meet the parents, things get even stranger. The parents are aloof, and the conversation at dinner is full of odd twists and turns. Jake's mother talks about a buzzing in her ears and how she hears whispers. The girlfriend is at a loss for how to respond, and Jake isn't really helping her. On top of the bizarre conversation, the girlfriend has been receiving strange phone calls all day, all from the same Caller.
The girlfriend won't tell anyone about the Caller. Her phone ringer is on, so Jake and his family know that she is dodging the calls, but she claims they are from a friend that she doesn't want to talk to. The Caller usually calls her at night, multiple times. He doesn't always leave a message, but when he does, it's cryptic. It's vulnerable and fearful, and he says he wants to do something, but there is just one question to resolve. To make matters even stranger, the Caller's number is the same as the girlfriend's.
What struck me as "off" is that, many times in the story, when I would have been scared witless, the girlfriend does not seem all that perturbed. And there are many such moments. This is not poor characterization on Reid's part, but it is yet another purposeful nuance in the story.
The Haunting Conclusion (Warning: Spoilers)
Jake's parents invite the two to stay overnight, since it gets late and there is a bad snowstorm coming, but Jake and his girlfriend insist on driving back home. In the middle of a blizzard, Jake wants to stop at Dairy Queen. The girlfriend is lactose intolerant but is a good sport. They both end up getting lemonades. They don't go far before they finish the drinks, and Jake wants to find a place to dispose of the cups. They stop at the high school in the area, which turns out to be a massive school for such a small town, and Jake gets out of the car to find garbage bins. A black pickup truck is there, too, indicating that someone is inside the school. It's the janitor.
When Jake returns to the car from disposing of the cups, he starts to make out with his girlfriend. Neither one of them seem very worried, for being out in a snowstorm alone late at night. Jake abruptly stops kissing her and gets angry when he claims that he saw someone standing outside the car, watching them, and leaves to confront the person. The girlfriend protests, but Jake takes the car keys when he runs off, so she is unable to do anything. When he does not return to the car for quite some time, she has no choice but to go around and inside the school, looking for him.
She spends a terrifying few hours inside the school. Jake has disappeared, and she is only aware of the janitor's presence. But he seems to be toying with her, stalking her, waiting for her to find him or give in to what he wants. She finds the showers of the locker rooms, and Jake's clothes are there, but no sign of Jake. Through this, it finally sinks in that the janitor is Jake.
"It's Jake. It was Jake. We're in here together. All of us," the narrator writes. The entire story is written by Jake, and he leaves it on paper for people to find with his body. The girl was real, someone he had been interested in, but he hadn't been able to bring himself to give her his number. She stayed inside his imagination and made it into his written goodbye - not a note so much as a story, but perhaps something much more revealing as to the complex workings of his mind.
A quote throughout the story suddenly makes more sense: "Allegory, elaborate metaphor. We don't just understand or recognize significance and validity through experience. We accept, reject, and discern through examples."
The Power of Allegory
Allegory is rich with meaning and tends to be easier for most readers to understand. But this allegory is especially rich with meaning, and this will take multiple reads for me to work out what purpose all the characters and details serve. The pigs and the Caller stuck with me in particular. Those are easier to understand, especially for those personally familiar with mental illness - how it eats one from the inside out, how calls for help can go unanswered or come from a part of ourselves that we don't really recognize. Our own darkness can scare us. And it is true, as the writer puts it, "You can't fake a thought."
This novel was terrifying in its realness, and I am eager to explore more of Reid's work. His writing is extremely descriptive and thought-provoking. Although I was initially dumbstruck by the ending of this book, it has been one that I cannot forget, that I cannot stop thinking about and trying to work out. If you enjoy books like that, then I would recommend checking this out. If you have struggled with suicidal thoughts, I would suggest to be careful or to not undertake this book on your own.
Read it? Feel free to share your thoughts and theories in the comments!
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