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Matter over mind – ‘Spoonbenders’

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Novel explores trials and tribulations of psychic family

Who among us hasn’t dreamed of having some sort of power beyond that of mere mortals? Abilities beyond the ken of explanation, talents that transcend everyday understanding? The appeal of such things is real.

But what if being special isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

In Daryl Gregory’s “Spoonbenders” (Knopf, $27.95), we’re introduced to a family packed with unusual talents that is forced to deal with obstacles ordinary and extraordinary alike. From their early days as a famous group of psychic entertainers to their current struggles with the ongoing aftermath of their fall from grace, multiple generations are left to deal with grief and growth and changes that – despite their prodigious abilities – prove impossible to predict.

Teddy Telemachus was a young con man out to score some easy cash when he signed up for an ESP study in 1963. A charmer with quick hands and a quicker wit, he figured he could fake his way into a few bucks. But then he met Maureen McKinnon, who could do everything Teddy was pretending to do, only for real – and plenty more besides.

The two fell in love, got married and had kids – three of them, all with talents of their own. Irene, the human lie detector. Frankie, the telekinetic. And Buddy, the youngest, who could see the future. Together, they became the Amazing Telemachus Family, famed for performing incredible psychic feats on national television shows – until their most vocal critic seemingly debunked them.

Three decades later, the Telemachus children are adrift, the fame and fortune of their childhood a distant half-memory. Irene’s penchant for determining the truth makes for a messy life devoid of trust, both personally and professionally. Frankie’s power has deserted him and one of his many get-rich-quick schemes has left him indebted to some unpleasant people. And Buddy has withdrawn into himself, wandering through an assortment of weird, half-finished projects and rarely speaking aloud.

Even at an advanced age, Teddy remains a charismatic rogue. Even when confronted by the realities of loss, he maintains an indefatigable spirit in the face of the most overwhelming odds.

But things change when Matty – Irene’s son, Teddy’s grandson – starts demonstrating abilities of his own. Abilities that prove to be quite interesting to a lot of people; friends and enemies alike are very curious as to just what Matty might be capable of doing … and the distinction between those friends and enemies is very fuzzy indeed.

For things to have any chance of working out to the good, the Telemachus family is going to have to find a way to become Amazing once more.

“Spoonbenders” is an energetic, engaging genre mélange. There’s something for everyone: speculative fiction, crime fiction, family sagas, coming of age – it’s all here. Even better, it all WORKS. Rather than feeling like a stitched-together combo quilt, this book feels very much like its own thing, incorporating diverse elements in service to the most important factor – the story.

And what a story it is.

That story is what truly elevates “Spoonbenders.” Daryl Gregory proves wonderfully capable with regards to the meticulous knotting of narrative threads. Moving with ease from timeline to timeline and perspective to perspective, Gregory builds his world piece by piece. There’s a back-and-forth connective continuity that could be confusing in lesser hands; here, it simply accentuates the complex, fluid nature of the interpersonal dynamics at play.

In the Telemachus family, Gregory has created something beautiful and flawed. These people have suffered damage at every stop on the timeline – the past, the present and even the future – and are at a loss for how to heal. Even those who know what will happen exist in a world without context, trapped by information that renders free will as both an illusion and an unbearable burden. Ultimately, what we see is that dysfunction is dysfunction, regardless of whatever superpowers you might possess.

“Spoonbenders” is smart and funny, packed with thoughtfulness and joy; a celebration of family’s importance, love’s meaning and the unexpected downside of being psychic. The quirky, frustrating and ultimately endearing family at its center is weird and bold and unfailingly compelling. In Daryl Gregory’s hands, the Telemachus family truly is amazing.

And so is “Spoonbenders.”

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