Book recommendation: Being Henry David by Cal Armistead

When I bought Being Henry David, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The book sounded pretty interesting – stories featuring a character with amnesia always appeal to me, for some reason – but I wasn’t exactly sure if it would take a more literary or mystery path.

As it turns out, Cal Armistead included a bit of both in Being Henry David, and she did a wonderful job of combining them.

First, let’s talk about the literary side of things. I loved the way Armistead told Hank’s story. Usually, readers get to know a character who already has a decent idea of who they are. At the very least, they know their own name. But, in Being Henry David, Hank is getting to know himself at exactly the same pace – and in exactly the same way – as the reader is. He’s right there with you when realize he has no memories, while he figures out where he is, and – eventually – when he figures out his past.

Somehow, learning those aspects of Hank’s life at the same time as he did linked me to the character in a way that I don’t often experience. Sure, I connect with characters all the time, on some level. But something about this particular experience made this link stronger. I can’t really explain why that is, but I’m sure that others who read the novel would feel much the same way.

The second biggest aspect of Being Henry David was the mystery of it. Waking up without any memories, Hank, of course, wants to learn who he is. He goes through a number of theories and emotions throughout this process, and so it’s difficult for the reader to figure out exactly what happened in the past. Armistead makes it clear that something tragic occurred, but what that may be isn’t revealed until close to the end of the novel. And while hints to it are left throughout, I found that I wasn’t able to correctly guess what had happened.

Goodreads summary

Seventeen-year-old “Hank” has found himself at Penn Station in New York City with no memory of anything –who he is, where he came from, why he’s running away. His only possession is a worn copy of Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. And so he becomes Henry David-or “Hank” and takes first to the streets, and then to the only destination he can think of–Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. Cal Armistead’s remarkable debut novel is about a teen in search of himself. Hank begins to piece together recollections from his past. The only way Hank can discover his present is to face up to the realities of his grievous memories. He must come to terms with the tragedy of his past, to stop running, and to find his way home.

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