I have to admit that when Jackie (Farm Lane Books Blog) chose Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) for our Riverside Readers book group, I was a little dubious (sorry Jackie!). Firstly, it involved a mouse called Algernon (“silly name for a mouse” I thought), and the copy that Jackie showed us had a rather spooky sci-fi looking cover with a maze on it. I can’t help it, I’m a book cover snob.
Little did I expect to completely fall in love with it…
Flowers for Algernon is the story of a 32 year old man – Charley Gordon, who is given an operation to correct his mental disability and allow him to learn. The experiment has been tested on a mouse called Algernon, who has become something of a super-mouse with an ability to figure out complex puzzles (hence the maze on the cover). At the start of the book Charley works as a cleaner in a bakery and has an IQ of 68. We read the book in the form of ‘progress reports’ which are written by Charley himself, so the reader is instantly given a special insight into his perspective on the situation. His initial reports are at first childlike, and confused, but develop as the experiment affects him. I won’t go into too much detail on the storyline, but I will say that the reader goes on a remarkable journey with Charley, exploring the relationships he has before and after the change, his disjointed family background and the experiences he has of the world as he develops. The actual timeframe that the book covers is very short (less than a year) but it feels like a lifetime in terms of the discoveries and changes that Charley undergoes.
I don’t know about you, but reading a synopsis of this book wouldn’t have made me want to read it, but I am so pleased that I did. The writing style was fluid and engaging (I was completely absorbed for 2 days), the characters incredibly realistic and the idea once I’d started reading was so compelling that I found myself believing that this was a real person and a real experiment. It’s also an incredibly moving book, and really makes you switch on to the ideas expressed in a skillful way (i.e. without being over dramatic or sickly-sweet). At times I loved Charley, and felt deep empathy and at others I was disappointed in him and upset, and I responded to him as a real human rather than a creation.
The book posed all sorts of questions for me like; Was he better off before or after? How does intelligence define personality? Was it worth it? Was it a moral experiment? As a book group choice it provided excellent fodder for discussion and I think that it would appeal to a wide spectrum of people, who might not think to pick it up. I would seriously urge you to get a copy!
Have you read Flowers for Algernon?
Have you read any books that surprised you?
Interested in the Riverside Reader’s London-based group? Click here to find out more.