This is by far my front runner for the best book I will read all year. It’s absolutely fantastic through and through. The premise is pretty simply: Beth Harmon is orphaned when she’s seven, but her life was already one filled with banal forms of trauma like the addiction and break up of her parents, abandonment, and so on. When she’s sent to an orphanage she quickly and easily excels in her schoolwork, but her brain is full of emotional and psychical storms, and so the tranquilizers the children get daily in the form of a little yellow pill act to quiet the fire in her brain. When she approaches a janitor in the basement playing a game by himself and convinces him to tell her about it, chess fights for the same attention and quieting effect as her self-medication. As she grows as a player, quickly learning the game and beating the janitor, meeting and beating a local chess coach and his high school team, she’s still quietly fighting the stirring energies and instabilities of the world inside her head.
There’s an absolute brilliant set of scenes where she borrows money to enter a local tournament where her first opponent has to teach her how to use clocks, the tournament rules, and all the other things she would know had not simply been a recently adopted, but otherwise orphaned girl playing in her first chess tournament for the first time of her life. As she slowly demolishes the competition in this local tournament she gets her period and is running back and forth from her chess board to the bathroom to change out her impromptu sanitary pad. When the dust settles and she beats the frontrunner of the tournament, she understands that she’s just become the Kentucky state champion. This is all in the first third of the novel. The remaining 200 pages or so mark her growth as a player, as a person, and narrates her brilliance, her drive, and her struggles with addiction, self-medication, and the desire to be the very best at something that she only happened upon by accident.
This is such an utterly compelling novel, and it reads like a sports movie or novel, but Beth’s amazing brain is filled with careful calculation and the decoding of the games she’s playing. She’s an entirely fetching and charming character, while also clearly fighting back what it means to have a genius mind. I have never been any good at chess, but I know enough to follow the games as they’re happening, but I don’t think you’d need to know almost anything because the novel has a tight focus on Beth’s perspective as she learns and grows, and so would you. This is an absolute masterclass in pacing and structure.