Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones book review

Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels is a brilliant werewolf story that you need to read

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The young protagonist of Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels isn’t like everyone else. His family have a secret, one that keeps them constantly on the move through the American South, one step ahead of the landlord and the law. They’re werewolves, real werewolves, and staying alive is a full-time job.

As the boy grows up with his uncle Darren and aunt Libby, he sees them at their best and at their worst, how they live with this, how they survive from day to day, but the question that keeps haunting him is: will he ever turn?

Mongrels is something very special. Jones has crafted a warm, witty and gritty coming of age story that grounds it supernatural element by grounding it in a tale of a family struggling to get by. They move from state to state, constantly getting in trouble with the law, bickering, picking open old wounds, but always staying together. It’s wonderfully detailed, both in terms of its mythology and in its relationships.

The characters are so well written that you instantly feel at home in their company and relish spending time with them. There’s Darren, whose slyly reckless attitude hides the fact he’d do anything for his sister and his nephew, there’s Libby, who is protective and sensible but carries a deeply sad history that keeps repeating itself, and there’s the boy, who longs for the day when he’ll finally turn and really become part of the family.

Although the idea of the wolf pack is a well-worn metaphor for tight-knit, co-dependent, frequently law-breaking groups, Jones’ interest in the supernatural element goes beyond mere background colour. The novel is loaded with werewolf life lessons, from urinating before transformation (a wolf bladder is smaller than a human bladder) and emptying the bins regularly (a wolf won’t choke on a can lid but a human will when they turn back), to road kill dinners and the horrors of what happens when someone who wasn’t born a werewolf is infected with the blood.

Jones delivers the supernatural elements with the same matter-of-fact sense of realism and dry humour as he does the family squabbles and their violent past. There’s a real, powerful heart to the novel, from the moment that the boy realises that his grandpa’s wild tales weren’t just ripping yarns for a small boy, but apologies for terrible things that should never have happened. This family never stops moving but the past is always just behind them, whether it’s in the form of a cop who remembers their face, or the relative of a victim who’s been searching for answers ever since.

There are moments of tense action, moments that border on body horror, and sense of melancholy and familial affection that make this superbly written coming of age story the best werewolf novel we’ve read for a long time. You need to read this.