cover image Monarch


Candice Wuehle. Soft Skull, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-1-59376-707-5

Child beauty pageants collide with a CIA mind control program in this bonkers debut novel from poet Wuehle (Death Industrial Complex). Jessica Clink, a precocious beauty queen, bulldozes her competition in pageants until she’s 13, when she falls for Veronica, her rival, in 1993. Her mother, a deposed Norwegian royal, busies herself hosting parties to tout an antiaging cryo chamber, while her professor father is absorbed in studying crimes of passion. They hire Christine, a young goth woman, as Jessica’s babysitter. After Jessica’s coach forces her to sabotage Veronica, Christine convinces her to quit the pageants. Jessica then falls into bouts of sleepwalking and wakes up with mysterious bruises and gaps in her memory. In 1999, as a college student working at a photography store, Jessica develops a series of lurid crime-scene photos that trigger a flood of memories, prompting her mother to reveal that Jessica was a sleeper agent in Monarch, an offshoot of MKUltra. Now Jessica is out to find vengeance—and the truth about Veronica. Wuehle’s fever dream impressively connects a series of such true crime cases as Lorena Bobbitt’s and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson with Jessica’s coming of age and her theorizing as to the purpose of her teenage life. Readers sturdy enough to peer into this glittering, multifaceted novel will find weaponized beauty reflected back. Agent: Kiele Raymond, Thompson Literary. (Mar.)