Ordinarily I would begin with my usual diatribe about the indie lit world not needing any more books that begin with the word "How". A recent and by no means complete sampling:
* How They Were Found - by Matt Bell
* How to Predict the Weather - by Aaron Burch,
* How to Take Yourself Apart, How to Make Yourself Anew - more Aaron Burch!,
* and who could forget the classic How I Learned to Love You From So Far Away.
But in this case the word "how" is essential to the book. Almost every sentence in this book begins with the word "how." The repetition of the word creates a rhythm, a poetry. Take any page in the book and cross out every "how" and you're left with a relatively straight-forward narrative. (HUGE asterix/caveat here on "straight-forward": absolutely nothing about this book is straight-forward.) The constant chant of the word "how" takes narrative prose and launches it out somewhere between brimstone sermon and cinematic pastiche. Each instance of the word "how" gives each sentence a cumulative weight, imposing heavier and heavier layers of passion and dread and terror on the story.
So, the story. Guarantee you ask two people what this book is about and you get two different answers. It seems to take place on an alternate Earth, somewhere out of time with our own. There's a diphtheria epidemic, and reference is made to "schoolmarms," but there are also television crews and sunglasses. The book begins with a fire. A boy hides underground while his parents are killed. A new family comes and builds a house next to the still-burning remains of the previous house. The new family has a son, but the original boy comes out from underground, kills the son, then takes his place in the family. The parents don't seem to mind. Then the boy takes a pet kitten out of the wall where it was being used as insulation, and then it starts getting weird.
The details of the narrative are almost beside the point. The work of the dense litany of the text isn't so much to relate that X happened and then Y happened, as much as it is to shotgun jarring images and wrought emotions at you from every direction.
"You" being the other important word in this book. There's a shady figure lurking in the text. He or she burned the boy's house down and killed his family, in the beginning of the book, and this person chases the boy through the chapters, intent on killing him. This antagonist is addressed as "you" by the narrator. This is a book about wanting a home, wanting a family, wanting to give and receive love, wanting a connection, wanting peace, wanting quiet, wanting to be left alone to be part of the world. What we all want, right? But will we let it happen, is the central question of the book.
Also one last thing: I'm sure Blake Butler is a very nice person and that he had nothing but the best intentions, but what is the deal with the blurb on this book. Even having read the book I can't figure out what he's talking about. Blurbs are incredibly difficult to write, especially so with a book like this. But I really liked the book, and I'm bummed it doesn't have a more approachable/inviting (grammatical?) blurb to go with it.