________________ CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 2. . . .September 10, 2010.


The Monkeyface Chronicles.

Richard Scarsbrook.
Saskatoon, SK: Thistledown Press, 2010.
306 pp., pbk., $16.95.
ISBN 978-1-897235-76-8.

Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.

Review by Darleen Golke.





The simplest explanation for my placement in 8-C, though, is my face. I suffer from a rather extreme facial deformity. A mutation in my IRF6 gene (which stands for “Interferon Regulatory Factor 6”) caused me to be born with a cleft lip, unusual teeth, and a flattened nose. Medical scientists have named my condition “Van der Woude Syndrome,” but most of my classmates just call me “Monkeyface.” They say it mostly behind my back now, since my twin brother Michael has offered to make their own faces look even worse than mine if he ever hers them say it.

Michael and I are not the only twin brothers in the school; Graham and Grant Brush are no longer allowed to be in the same class together, since they used to constantly distract each other and their classmates. Schoolyard rumour has it that, as a team, Grum and Grunt have driven at least one teacher into early retirement. Seeing their barrel-shaped shadows lurching toward you at recess is pure, cold terror. You are automatically outnumbered. They always work in tandem. When the beady black bulldog eyes of Grum zero in on you, you know that Grunt will be right behind him. And vice versa.

Unlike Grum and Grunt, who are identical twins, Michael and I are the non-identical fraternal kind. This is a fortunate thing for Michael. Unlike me, he has an architecturally perfect face: sky-blue eyes, wavy dark hair, strong cheekbones, square jaw, and a straight, chiselled nose. He is strong, smart, kind and handsome. Every teacher wants Michael in their class, every boy wants Michael on his team at recess, and every girl wants him to be her boyfriend.

Despite Michael’s efforts to protect me from the recess chants of “Monkeyface! Monkeyface!” it would be naive to not [sic] see the comparison myself. The facial features created by the one messed-up gene are in fact quite simian, and my mess of dark hair and my big brown eyes just add to the effect. So, the kid with the monkey face got tossed into the classroom full of kids with monkey IQs. I’m sure it made sense to the Powers That Be at the Board of Education.

In his third novel, Scarsbrook returns to fictional Faireville of Cheeseburger Subversive (2003) and Featherless Bipeds (2006) to present Philip Skyler in a three part chronicle: his eighth-grade introduction to public school, his twelfth-grade challenges, and his recovery from a life-threatening motorcycle accident.

     The reader meets Philip the day he turns 13 in his family environment and at school where he falls victim to the school bullies who deliver a vicious version of the outlawed “Birthday Beats.” Accompanied by his mom and grandfather, Philip reluctantly returns to the school to meet with the administration. When challenged by grandfather Skyler, the principal, Brush, asks the students to verify the account as filed. To Philip’s shock, two students find the courage to detail events as they actually happened, the other students corroborate their version, and Brush is forced to process an “Official Notice of Suspension” for his sons. The bullies and their entourage continue to make life difficult, but Philip learns to handle them and survive his immersion into public school after years of home-schooling that shielded him from the inevitable cruelty of his peers.

     When the chronicle resumes five years later, Philip has established a network of friends, collected a girlfriend, achieved considerable recognition for his academic abilities, and plays regularly for the school hockey on its way to the playoffs. Scarsbrook reveals the Skyler family dysfunction throughout the chronicle recording an uninvolved father, a doting mother, and the ever-present aphorism-spouting grandfather. Unfortunately, Philip’s senior year at high school turns tragic when, thanks to a vicious, deliberate hit by the Brush brothers, Michael suffers a broken neck, shattered vertebrae, severe concussion, and lies near death in hospital. Distraught at his brother’s condition, Philip discovers vandals have destroyed his home, and then he receives a further shock when he overhears a loud altercation between his father and grandfather about his paternity. He tears away from the scene on his father’s motorcycle, crashes, somehow survives, and endures months of surgeries, therapy, and rehabilitation, often in a drug-induced, pain controlling fog. When he finally gains release from the medical world two years later, Philip has a new face, a new voice, and a healed body, but he feels the need to reunite with his family and his Faireville life. Returning home to a celebration with his family, Philip is overwhelmed by events and exits the scene to reunite with former classmates and his town. Scarsbrook concludes the novel ten years down the road with the aphorism, “Live well. It is the greatest revenge.”

     The multi-layered, engrossing, complex tale reveals a unique coming-of-age novel peopled by characters whose strengths and weaknesses form a framework for the plot twists. Densely packed with topics, the novel considers dysfunctional families, peer pressure, physical deformities, religious fanaticism, bullying, political gamesmanship, competitive athletics, medical disorders, questionable business practices, revenge, appearance-versus-reality, social misfits, among others.  Philip, as first-person narrator, bombards the reader with details of daily life, with memorable, not necessarily admirable characters, and with plenty of action while imparting his personal observations and revealing his evolving philosophy of life. Smart, funny, athletically talented, albeit physically flawed and a misfit, Philip seems almost too heroic to be believable, aside from his propensity to flee the scene when situations become too tense. Scarsbrook carefully designs a protagonist who is modest, sees humour among the absurdities and struggles of daily life, manages the restrictions imposed by his facial deformity, and insightfully evaluates himself, his family, and his community. Well-paced prose infused with light humour produces some memorable scenes that resonate with credibility. Brisk, realistic dialogue reflects the author’s years of listening to student chatter as an elementary, secondary, and college level teacher. Author, songwriter, actor, musician, Scarsbrook seamlessly incorporates several previously published short stories as chapters in the novel, linking them effectively with the plot. In remarkable, keenly observed detail, he excels at capturing ordinary and extraordinary moments of life in a tale to engage and entertain readers of any age. The Monkeyface Chronicles is not an easy read, but it amply rewards those who persevere.

Highly Recommended.

Darleen Golke writes from Abbotsford, BC.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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