A boarding school tale for those who enjoy underdogs, appreciate unusual coming-of-age stories, and identify with misunderstood geniuses.
A student with Tourette’s syndrome deals with bullies, alcoholism, and unexpected friendship at a prestigious boarding school in Freak, the latest book from Jonathan Harnisch.
Georgie Gust is the alternate identity of Ben Schreiber, or vice versa—even Georgie can’t keep track of all of his psychiatric problems. Full of tics and bereft of friends, Georgie enters prestigious Wakefield Academy, a boarding school where he may have a chance to win a scholarship. But social alienation and the unwanted attention of a jock, Ozer, threaten Georgie’s mental health. As he spirals into alcoholism, only the affection of his one friend might redeem him.
The characters of Georgie and Ben reoccur often in Harnisch’s work, always dealing with the problems of schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome, and alienation. Here, Ben primarily appears in diary entries and parenthetical asides, while Georgie dominates the plot. While the interplay between Georgie and Ben is interesting, their struggle for control barely appears in this work. Instead, the main conflict here exists within Georgie as he comes to terms with being different from his classmates. Though Georgie’s dance with the bottle can be considered a manifestation of this struggle, it is Ozer who emerges as an external symbol of Georgie’s self-loathing, consistently attacking Georgie when he is in the process of distinguishing himself from his peers. The interesting development of Georgie as a character may impact how fans of Harnisch may interpret the interpersonal dynamics between the personalities of Georgie and Ben in later books.
The book’s greatest strength lies in character development, though its dialogue is consistently weak. Students who identify a teacher by her first name, for example, are difficult to take at face value, and a jock whose vocabulary suddenly expands to include the word “wastrel” doesn’t quite fit the character or the vague temporal setting in the late ’80s or ‘90s. Georgie’s character arc is by far the most significant, allowing him to transcend his identity as a self-pitying victim of his psychiatric conditions and embrace himself as a talented and unique individual. However, the developments of other characters, especially Georgie’s friend Claudia, are also well wrought.
Unfortunately, Freak has some serious technical editing problems, including frequent incorrect comma usage and an unnecessary chapter-by-chapter synopsis at the beginning. While these mistakes are never serious enough to detract from the story, they do damage the experience of what is otherwise a fairly strong book. The outline is also a turn-off; the book itself would be more accessible without it.
The unique personal tone of this book is engaging, combining an unapologetic look at the experience of mental illness with wordplay and even poignancy, and helps to make it a fun read. It is most likely to please open-minded individuals who enjoy underdogs, appreciate unusual coming-of-age stories, and identify with misunderstood genius.
Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The publisher of this book provided free copies of the book and paid a small fee to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. Foreword Reviews and Clarion Reviews make no guarantee that the publisher will receive a positive review. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.