The Inner Workings of the Wasp Factory

the wasp factoryFor most of this book, I genuinely thought I had a winner on my hands. It was a fascinating, well written and cleverly constructed monologue from the perspective of a sadistic killer. I was absorbed by the slow reveal and revelled in the way it kept up suspense, right until the end. Most of all, I thought the voice was incredibly powerful and felt like I got a sense of what kind of beast we were dealing with from page one… I was wrong.

Perhaps part of it is that I’m conditioned by a lot of thrillers/horror type books to assume the worst of the murder-y protagonist and suspect the reliability of their narration. This particular character had all the hallmarks of evildom I’ve come to expect:

The lack of trust for other people, which hinted at some paranoia- check tick box

Hints at him lying to other characters and being less than trustworthy- check tick box

The fact that he *literally* kills people (and tortures insects for fun)- check tick box

I mean, it’s quite clear that the main character is not quite right in the head. He even has a Thanos moment, saying “I ought to redress the balance at least slightly”. His warped sense of guilt, due to the fact he claims to have liked most of his victims or felt sympathy for them, makes for an interesting insight into the workings of his mind. I also appreciated the way he often transferred the crime onto an inanimate object, like a balloon, in order to distance himself from his own actions. And yet at the same time, he’s clearly a cold-blooded killer, whose murders are premeditated and vicious. Like I said, this book seemed like it had all the ingredients to cook up a satisfying story about a villainous creep.

So what went wrong?

That mothereffing twist. The more I mull it over, the less it works. Spoilers up ahead, but making him a woman all along was far from the best resolution. At first, I thought, huh, this has interesting implications… and then I started to figure out what those implications were and I wasn’t happy. Primarily, because I got the sense from the ending that there was supposed to be some kind of message locked into this reveal and I couldn’t for the life of me figure it out. Was it trying to say that if you took a woman and forced them to be a man, they’d automatically become a murderer? Cos that’s effed up. I get that the main character is psychologically abused into thinking they’re a defective man the whole time, but that doesn’t exactly change the fact they’re a monster in their own right. Being a victim of his father’s evildoings also doesn’t exonerate her from all the shit she’s caused- and yet it’s implied that somehow this person can go on and live some sort of life in society now that this secret has been uncovered… riiiighhht. So whatever idea the author was trying to get across, it didn’t quite land for me (not even with the suddenly-adopted preachy tone employed at the last minute).

However, the reveal did play in a little to the psychological elements that had previously been threaded through the story. Instead of his misogyny, for instance, being down to easily justifiable (to the mc’s mind at least) reasons, there are deeper issues at play. Being taught to be evil ends up playing a greater role in the story, since the protagonist has literally been taught to hate their own gender by the father’s more subtle lessons (again, there’s somewhat of an issue with the implication that being raised male will automatically make you a little toxic). You could even say that symbolically the lead acts unwittingly to victimise other characters since they’ve been victimised unwittingly. It’s just that… the story didn’t require that kind of explanation. There was scope within the story to show that the character bullies because they have the power to take advantage of those weaker than them- not because there was genuinely a conspiracy against them all along. The explanation actually did very little to explain why the main character resorted to murdering their peers and takes away from any psychologically rewarding analysis.

Plus this plot twist actually causes some plot holes to spring from nowhere. Suddenly the fear of authority and Freudian distrust of the father figure are abandoned by the massive shift in the story. This unfortunately made the story feel incomplete- all the previously raised suggestions become a “neat” conclusion that didn’t actually answer a lot of questions. A lot of those subjects felt like pointless misdirection by the end.

*End of Spoiler Section*

It’s a pity, because before that it had all felt tight and brilliantly structured. I liked the non-chronological account. I thought the mc’s anger, darkness and raw resentfulness kinda worked. For the most part, it was a glimpse into the worst recesses of the human mind. The harshness of lines like “Children aren’t real people” clashed with inner decency and gave the character the potential to be one of literature’s villainous “greats”. Some parts were icky- the Eric thing is too much to even comment about- yet they provided a (in)decent backdrop for the narrative. But by trying to tie everything neatly up in a convenient bow, a lot of that was lost.

Clearly this book was not perfect and I didn’t quite feel that it came totally came together in the end. That said, the book had a great deal of merits, which prevented me from completely slashing the rating at that ending. The writing was of such a brilliant standard that most of the way through the book I thought it was easily worthy of 5 bananas. Furthermore, its position in the horror genre means that I can forgive it for not feeling all that realistic. Seeing it as more fantastical allows me to forgive it the somewhat nonsensical messaging. And on the positive side, I cannot stop thinking of its violent and pervasive imagery. The words of the text stand alone from the author’s ultimate intrusion into the story and there was real power behind a great deal of it. That’s why I gave it:

3½/5 bananas

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So have you read this? What did you think of it? What did you make of that ending? And for those of you that haven’t read it, what was the last book you read where the finale just boggled the mind? Let me know in the comments!

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39 thoughts on “The Inner Workings of the Wasp Factory

  1. Sophie @ Blame Chocolate says:

    Ugh, I hate when I’m loving a book and then a plot twist comes that changes everything! It’s just so frustrating and feels like I’ve wasted all my time on something that just wasn’t able to deliver in the end… Well, at least when it comes to my expectations. Why do authors torture us so? 😦
    Amazing review, however!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beware Of The Reader says:

    The last one I can think of is The Fate of the Tearling. And I was mad as the other two books were just fantastic! Then I was “What the heck happened here???” I wrote a loooong review (not as well rounded as yours though) explaining what I thought went wrong and what the author should never do. Excellent review here!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. raistlin0903 says:

    Well, that sounds quite disappointing. I have an extreme fear of wasps, so a book with a title like this automatically gives me traumas lol😂
    Seriously though too bad this was a disappointment because of the twist. Still it seems that this wasn’t a total loss luckily, so there is that. Awesome post as always! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      hehehe I can understand that (this book actually has lots of insects- and I hate all of them- but since it’s sort of in the horror genre, I give it a pass for freaking me, cos it’s kinda supposed to do that 😉 but yeah I relate!)
      Yeah it was a real shame. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Beth (Reading Every Night) says:

    I skipped the spoiler section of this review (I don’t have The Wasp Factory on my TBR list or anything, I just always avoid spoilers if I can) but it really sucks when a book you think has so much potential is let down by the ending or the twist. I’ve come across a few books like that myself and it’s in a way almost more disappointing than a book that isn’t good at all right?
    Great review though, hopefully the next book you pick up will be good from beginning to end. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. lucindablogs says:

    I read this when I was a young teenager and all I can remember is being totally grossed out. I seem to remember a part where the mc collects his/her own bodily fluids and thinking TOO FAR and not engaging with the rest of the book. Possibly yet another book I might have appreciated more if I had been a bit older when I read it. Would be interesting to read it again, especially since the debate/discourse around binary notions of gender and gender norms has moved on so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lisa (@TenaciousReader) says:

    I quit reading when you warned of spoilers but I’m curious! I have wanted to read this for years, and got excited when I saw you were loving it…. Whenever I do find the time, I’ll keep in mind to tamper my expectations for the entire reading experience

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Rob says:

    *spoilers in this comment*

    I loved this novel! The twist at the end was a bit odd, but it definitely didn’t put me off as much as it did you. I didn’t see it being quite as simple as forcing a woman to grow up as a man turning them into a murderer, but I think the idea was him growing up with obvious mental illness, a physically and mentally abusive father, and the confusion of being fed hormones and being forced to live this lie is what did it. Frank had this obsessive idea of what he felt a man was supposed to be, was frustrated with what he felt he was lacking, and overcompensated both in his masculinity and in his hatred of women. Once the reveal happens, those ideas she had were kinda flipped upside down. I think the main thing is there was some kind of mental illness under this that amplified all of these thoughts to the extreme, at least that’s how I saw it. I don’t feel like the message was necessarily that this forced gender dysphoria situation alone made her a killer, but it has been a while since I read it, so I maybe I’m misremembering some bits.

    One thing that did bother me a bit is the idea that having your penis bitten off by a dog will result in a vagina. I feel like there’s more to it than that, haha. I supposed he did attempt to address this, but it just seemed like you’d know something was up…

    Liked by 1 person

    • cryptomathecian says:

      I remember one of my psychology professors boasting how he turned a young baby boy, who got its genitals accidentally burned, successfully into a girl. The story went wrong when the child entered puberty and refused to take the hormones to grow breasts and on later age sued the medical team. I didn’t follow up any further, but I fear this story didn’t have a happy ending.

      Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Well first of all, I’m glad you got more out of it than I did! It is a well written book and I get why it’s been so successful. And I do hear you about the mc being clearly damaged by their abusive upbringing and get what the author was going for there. However, I felt like the reveal undermined some aspects of the book. Frank was displaying textbook signs of sociopathy or psychopathy- which couldn’t have been resolved just by finding out the truth of the abuse (even if sociopathy can be “learned” it can’t be unlearned; people are born psychopaths, so that just doesn’t add up). It’s not a switch that can be flipped and that didn’t make sense to me. Then, once I was on the route of questioning the psychology of the character, I thought a lot about case studies where this has been done to children- and the upshot of those has been that they produce suicidal/depressive tendencies- so I’m not convinced this would produce a murderer or that it would have triggered sociopathy. Aside from everything else I mentioned in the review, I think what made this such a problem for me- where I often can suspend disbelief- was the attempt at an explanation at the end, which only undermined the logic of the story with a very pseudoscientific explanation. For me, it would have been better to leave it as symbolism (and also not suggest the protagonist could be “cured”). Like I said, I basically let it slide, but it didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Hope all of that made sense!

      hehe yes, I’d have thought he’d have known something was up too.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Ally Writes Things says:

    Ahhhh yikes I hate when the twist is that the person wasn’t the gender/sex you thought they were. I read a domestic/psychological thriller last year about domestic abuse where the abuser turned about to be a woman, and thought that worked because the victim’s (her husband’s) worries about not being believed and being ridiculed had bigger impacts, and I thought it highlighted (or tried to highlight) that we assume abuser = man, victim = woman in domestic situations. But I read another book a while ago where the protagonist was abused by her father, and then we learn in the end that her father was transgender and a lot of the abuse was because of his body dysmorphia. Which was really not okay because that’s just a bad message to send. I guess it really just depends on how it’s done and how it’s handled

    Liked by 1 person

  9. jennifertarheelreader says:

    Terrific review! It sounds like a mixed bag with some forgivable errors. My most recent read with a similar off-the-wall ending was Every Breath You Take by Mary Kubica. I was ok with the ending, but wow, it made a bunch of readers angry which I totally get, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Norrie says:

    I read this over ten years ago, but i enjoyed it through the end. I remember being shocked by that twist, but i did like it 😀 If there was a hidden message, chances are it flew over my head…

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Yeah it was a mess. I wouldn’t say the author is untalented (I actually think to the contrary, he’s very talented and I’d happily read his other work) but the plot twist just wasn’t the best for me (especially since it was implied everything was “fixed” by finding out the truth) Hope that makes sense!

      Like

  11. LizScanlon says:

    Hmm… I’ve only ever read one book prior where the main twist was that the character turned out to be a different sex and it really, seriously messed with my head.. like, it made me feel like I’d read a lie 😀 It can be a great twist but it’s quite risky too in some cases…

    Liked by 1 person

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