Lone Survivor?

Thirty-Seven - Peter Stenson

All eighteen-year-olds seem to struggle with issues of identity and belonging, but Mason Hues just might be the most extreme example. When he is first introduced as the narrator in Peter Stenson’s novel Thirty-Seven, he is not even sure which name to use. In fact, Mason began life unnamed until his adoption by an upper-class couple who raised him in a life of privilege. Mason is permanently scarred, however, after one of them repetitively abused him as he entered adolescence. Mason describes how he reinvented himself by running away at fifteen to join a “new family of his own choosing,” – a cult led by a former oncologist whose followers used unnecessary chemotherapy drugs to induce illness. The core tenet of the group (later infamously known as “the Survivors,”) was the belief that experiencing life-endangering sickness can elicit profound truth, connection and insight. Mason is dubbed Thirty-Seven, denoting the order in which he joined the cult and to completely obliterate his past. As he relates his story, Mason often refers to a book written about the cult after a catastrophic event that left him as its sole survivor and witness. Now, he is trying to start fresh once again in anonymity, having been released from a stay at a mental institution. Still struggling against the brainwashing he received, Mason lands a job at a thrift store run by a young woman with scars of her own. He becomes increasingly unsure about his life’s purpose and is tempted to reconstruct another group based on The Survivors’ ideas. This juxtaposition of identities- whether real, self-composed or assigned by others- is treated in a unique way by Stenson in this odd bildungsroman. A thoughtful premise and some unexpected twists make Thirty-Seven an interesting choice for readers who can stomach some darkness and despair. The novel would have greatly benefitted by more editing in terms of its length and grammar, and it appears overly-repetitive at times. The depictions of violence, illness and abuse are fairly graphic and those who could be sensitive to those issues might not want to venture too far into the mind of Mason Hues. Thanks to Dzanc Books and Edelweiss for an ARC of this title in exchange for an unbiased review.