Book review: In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune

(courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

There’s something innately beautiful about each and every book that TJ Klune releases.

That beauty comes from the fact that he infuses every single novel, from The House on the Cerulean Sea to Under the Whispering Door to Wolfsong, all of which occupy a quirky, cosy slice of fantasy-goth/dystopian-apocalyptic literature, with an innate, fervently buoyant humanity which celebrates what it means to be connected, part of a family and be loved without condition for who you are.

For anyone who has been rejected for their true self or bullied to within an inch of their life, existential or otherwise, or has felt adrift in a world without family or friends to call their own, Klune’s books are a warm and huggable balm for the soul, as well as being a muscular treatise on why unconditional love matters so damn much.

His latest gem of a novel, In the Lives of Puppets, very much fits into that mold, telling the story of the strangest of found families who, despite defying conventional ideas of who belongs together – and let’s be fair, convention usually gets it more wrong than right and is often so narrow it could crush you with its unimaginative strictures on what is and isn’t acceptable – are just what each other needs, now in a warm and fuzzy present and later in a nightmarishly adventurous present where so much of what they love and value is put very much in mortal jeopardy.

‘Love,’ the Coachman said in awe. ‘Truly? You love him?’

‘Yes,’ Nurse Ratched said. ‘We do. It may not be quite what Victor feels, but it is there all the same. I do not know how to explain it. I do not know if it is evolution or if it has always been there, waiting to be unlocked in all of us. I do not have a heart. Rambo does not have a heart. But we know how we feel.’

Set at an indeterminate time in the future – the novel at one point refers to something having not been the case for centuries so we’re talking well down the chronological line here – In the Lives of Puppets centres on a family of four living hidden deep in a verdant forest in what they refer to as Orey-gone – father Giovanni Lawson, sociopathically hilarious medical worker Nurse Ratched, cleaner Rambo and Victor, a young man who tinkers and invents in his lab high in the trees (their home is a treehouse built by Giovanni) and who is fond of visits to the local scarp yards where all kinds of salvageable goodies await.

The big point of difference here, and it is a doozy, is that Gio, as he’s often known, Ratched and Rambo are all machines of one kind or another, while Victor is very, very human, his presence, we are initially led to believe, the product of two people racing through the clearing where the treehouse sits and thrusting their baby into Gio’s arms.

The truth turns out to be something else entirely, and while that is best left to the reading, the reality is that however Victor came into Gio’s life, his presence is something the three robots value more than anything in the world, with Rambo, who’s impishly, delightfully naive and sweet and Ratched, who’s acerbically funny, and brutally playful with a heart of gold, especially grateful to the young man for rescuing them from the scrapheap.

TJ Klune (image courtesy Goodreads)

It turns out, and this only emerges when Vic, as he’s referred to by his family, rescues an android called “HAP” from the junkyard, that the reason why Gio raced to find sanctuary far out in the woods many years earlier is because machines have taken over the world, working to rid the planet of their “pest problem” known as humans, all while enforcing a group think which punishes free thought by any machine.

Leaving aside the irony of machines rising up against their makers only to be enslaved by their own kind, this dark reality means that no one can find the family or Vic is most certainly dead; unfortunately though, somehow the Authority in the City of Electric Dreams tracks Gio down and he’s captured and taken back to his old lab where he reprogrammed to be something entirely terrible and not at all the kind loving father he rebelled against his programming to be.

Victor decides he can’t simply let Gio be surrendered to a mindless fate worse than death, and so the four remaining family members – Hap is accepted but only with great reluctance by the other three who all struggle with the fact that’s he’s an ex-people killer; granted his memory is wiped and he remembers noting of this but still, he’s scary and dangerous until he proves not, which he happily does – set off across a machine-run America to find and save Gio, regardless of the dangers such as suicidal mission poses.

The threat posed weighs most heavily on Vic of course, who is likely the last of his kind, and the object of virulent hatred by an unyielding machine mind authoritarianism which maintains it wiped out humanity for the good of the environment but which essentially has far darker, murderous motives at work.

Vic groaned as Hap threw a pillow at her screen.

‘Hurray!’ Rambo cried. ‘Everything is wonderful!’ He paused. Then, ‘Well, except for for the fact that we’re hundreds of miles from home in a robot brothel about to infiltrate an impenetrable tower filled with bad guys who want to kill us while we try and rescue Gio even though he doesn’t remember anything, all under a plan given to us by a scary machine with fake wings, but still. Wonderful!’

On their journey, Vic has to wrestle with whether he can accept love, as the book’s blurb notes, “with strings attached” from Hap who it turns out is more than capable, just like Gio, Nurse Ratched and Rambo before him (but even more so given his bloodstained past) of thinking for himself and choosing a path more kindly inclusive, connected and loving that was in place previously.

At every juncture, In the Lives of Puppets is a supremely affecting delight and joy.

Yes, the stakes are fearsomely terrifying, and there’s no guarantee that anyone will emerge unscathed but somewhere in the middle of all the love and family on the chopping block narrative there is so much light, and hope and hilarity – the banter between Rambo and Ratched alone makes the heart sing, with Rambo a particular slice of happy naivety that makes you feel good to be alive – and a celebration of queer identity and a robust defense of being yourself and for being loved for that authenticity that you feel as if you’ve been gifted with the biggest of all hugs albeit tinged with possible treachery and loss.

In the Lives of Puppets is yet another feather in Klune’s considerable cap, a story that admits how dark life can be, horrifyingly so in fact, but which also knows how powerful love, hope and connection can be and how, with that on your side, pretty much anything is possible, even in the face of the greatest and bleakest of odds.

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