Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn – Review by William Polking

Many think pieces have been written this summer (I’m defining “summer” as any point after my school year ended, which was May 20—don’t hate me) about young adult (YA) fiction. Pieces trying to define the genre, pieces addressing a lack of diversity within the genre, pieces analyzing the popularity of the genre, pieces asking whether YA is a genre or a category, evergreen pieces about the darkness within YA and how that is a symptom/cause of a perceived cultural demise, and the inevitable scurrilous clickbait that has become the gaudy wallpaper of our online lives. (“Scurrilous Clickbait” would make both a great band name and an awesome tumblr.)

Among those pieces was Ruth Graham’s contentious “Against YA” piece (tagged with “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children”) in Slate. One of Graham’s arguments was this:

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.

complicitI would like to introduce Graham to the works of Stephanie Kuehn. In particular, her newest work of young adult fiction, Complicit. As real teens might say: That ending though. (Actually, it might be “That ending tho” or maybe even “That ending doe.”) Of course one cannot discuss endings without spoiling things, and I do not want to deny any of you the fevered rush I enjoyed as I tore through Complicit. Suffice it to say that the ending of Complicit is full of emotional and moral ambiguity. Metaphorically speaking, Complicit broke all the windows of my house and left me hiding under the bed like a dog spooked by 4th of July fireworks.

Complicit is narrated by sixteen-year-old Jamie Henry, who is desperately trying to leave the past behind. The more distant past of poverty and the death of his birth mother, as well as the more recent past of an older sister, Cate, and her madness and criminality. Jamie and Cate’s adoptive parents provide all the material comforts their birth mother could not, but the past continues to impinge upon the present, both physically and psychologically (to steal a theme from Hawthorne, perhaps the locus classicus of “adult” books teens are compelled to read). As the book begins, Cate has just been released from the Youth Correctional Facility, and her return threatens to burn down all of Jamie’s defenses against his past.

“This is either a fool’s errand or a hero’s quest” (212). So says Jamie near the end, as he pushes closer to discovering the truth about his mother, his sister, and himself. As a reader, particularly of psychological thrillers such as Complicit, I always begin feeling just like Jamie—either this book is going to jerk me around and waste my time, or I will end up fulfilled. Complicit is no fool’s errand—it has the same intelligence Kuehn showed in her amazing debut, the Morris Award-winning Charm & Strange (which I highly recommend). Like Charm & Strange, Complicit is a novel about broken teens. And like Charm & Strange, Complicit acknowledges that most adult of realities: Broken doesn’t always get fixed.

As for the broader debate, I’m not sure we can fix that either. I think of Young Adult as more of a category than a specific genre—it is large and contains multitudes. Young Adult contains all of the genres Adult fiction does, only with (according to some critics) the scarlet “YA” on the cover. As a reading teacher, the only embarrassment I want associated with reading is from adults who proudly proclaim that they don’t read. Diminishing others for their reading choices only leads to not reading–let’s not become complicit in this.

No adult should be embarrassed to read Complicit, but Kuehn’s latest is so good that adults and teens might be embarrassed not to.

William Polking tweets @Polking (warning: tweets may contain puns and soccer), reviews monthly for Guys Lit Wire, and promises to blog/review more often on his partially constructed website, He teaches freshman reading, college composition, media literacy, and now one section (thanks, budget cuts!) of English 11.