Book Review – Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

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Charlie Gordon has an IQ of 68 and is thirty-three years old. He lives a simple life, sweeping the floor at a bakery and attending classes at a school for the mentally-handicapped. Then, he’s taken in for tests in the hope that he’ll be selected for a procedure that will make him smarter. It’s already been tested on a mouse, Algernon, and at first Charlie looks at the mouse with envy, for Algernon is even smarter than Charlie. But gradually Charlie gets smarter and smarter, suddenly realizing that things in his life were not what they seemed. Then he notices some erratic behaviour from Algernon, and he has to face the possibility that the same fate could befall him.

This book is incredible. It’s written in a first person perspective in the form of progress reports that Charlie makes. At first he can barely write or spell, and Keyes does a great job of showing the gradual improvement in his intelligence as his writing gets clearer. It’s also heartbreaking as well, because with his improved intelligence comes a greater sense of self-awareness, and Charlie has a new perspective of life. He realizes that the people he thought were his friends were actually laughing at him because he was stupid, and he becomes increasingly annoyed at how people are treating him differently.

There are many pertinent points in this book and although it was written in 1966 it feels like it could be written today. The researchers call Charlie their ‘creation’, but Charlie is right in thinking that he was a person before the experiment. When he eventually becomes smarter than the researchers it leads to a lot of conflict, and other characters notice the change in Charlie, and it may not be for the better.

One of the main relationships in the book is with Annie, who was his teacher. Charlie falls in love with her, but they’re only on the same level of intelligence for a while. Also, he suffers from terrible panic attacks whenever they get close to making love. It’s awful to read because I wanted Charlie to be happy, but it does set into motion another area of self-discovery as he delves into his past and tries to figure out what happened. Through these memories the author gives an insight into Charlie’s childhood, and what’s interesting is these are told from a third-person perspective. So although Charlie is remembering the experiences he’s narrating them as if they happened to someone else, and this duality is a strong theme in the book as Charlie does basically become a different person.

Flowers for Algernon has a lot to say about the way we interact with other people and how we view ourselves, and the roles we play in society. Charlie’s role was changed and the book encapsulates the difficulties that come from it. I found it to be an absorbing read. The characters were given a lot of depth, and I liked how my opinion of things changed as Charlie’s perception shifted. The flashbacks to his childhood were handled well, and the ending is heartfelt. This is definitely a must-read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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