All the Castles Burned
By Michael Nye
All the Castles Burned is narrated by the protagonist, a man named Owen Webb, who relates the story of his time at an elite private school in the mid-nineties, his friendship with an upperclassman by the name of Carson Bly, and the slow-growing agitation bubbling beneath the surface of his parents’ deteriorating relationship. Although a large chunk of the novel focuses on Owen’s home-life and his father, the author purposefully directs the readers’ attention to Carson, a rock in Owen’s life amongst his more privileged peers and the uneasy atmosphere that surrounds his parents. From the very beginning, Owen warns his audience that his friendship with Carson doesn’t last, and continually drops reminders that some event taking place in the future is what eventually separates them. Because of these warnings, each benevolent gesture that Carson extends to Owen (inviting him to parties, helping him with basketball, providing a safe haven at his McMansion) is tinged with tension, due to the readers’ vague knowledge of what is yet to come. The culmination of this built up tension doesn’t fully take effect until the last twenty pages, at an unexpected time and place in the characters’ lives that might have you wondering if the last chapter could have stood on its own as a short story.
The author’s choice of narration style both undermines and sustains the story. Because the novel is Owen’s recollection, we never really get to understand what’s going on in the heads of the other characters unless it’s explicitly stated in their dialogue, and therefore we depend solely on Owen’s own speculations, which may or may not be on point. Aside from Owen’s father, there’s sometimes a lack of depth concerning most of the supporting characters, especially the women. Caitlin, Carson’s sister and Owen’s love interest is just that: Carson’s sister and Owen’s love interest. A low-key manic pixie dream girl with a taste for quirky hats and old movies, Caitlin doesn’t contribute much to the plot, aside from providing some background on her enigmatic brother.
In theory, this characterization is consistent with Owen’s narration. As a teenager, Owen romanticizes Caitlin (and to some extent, Carson), viewing her as a source of comfort instead of really getting to know her, which in turn, prevents the audience from understanding who Caitlin is outside of her relation with Carson and her relationship with Owen. The same can be said for Owen’s mother, whose continuous drinking and smoking are set up to establish her as a character to be pitied, with no payoff as to why we should care, outside of the fact that she’s the mother of our protagonist/narrator. That being said, the set-ups of each character prompt a curiosity as to what the story would have been like if we’d gotten a peek inside the minds of characters like Caitlin and Owen’s mother.
However, through Owen’s narration, the audience is treated to a very detailed and personal style of world building, founding this reality’s version of Cincinnati (and beyond) on wherever Owen takes the us. The author allows his readers to go through the motions of Owen’s journey as a teenager, from physical sensations like the nauseating effects of partying too hard, to the emotional anguish that comes from communicating with authority figures who don’t have it as together as they should, to the prickling sensation of being a fish out of water in a world you weren’t born into. Even if you aren’t a fan of sports, it’s easy to get swept up in Owen’s enthusiasm for playing basketball, understanding the levels to which he funnels his emotions (good and bad) into the game, a trait that eventually showcases the paths on which he and Carson divert. Essentially, All the Castles Burned tells the story of teenage angst, hidden depths of varying morality, and how our circumstances as children have the potential to shape the adults we grow up to be, depending on the decisions we make.