Genre: Adult Dystopian/Literary Fiction
Paperback, 416 pages
Published July 29th 2014 by William Morrow Paperbacks, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers (first published September 17th 2013)
Note: As a tour host selected by TLC virtual book tours, I received a complimentary copy from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed here are completely honest and completely my own.
It took me a long time and a lot of reflection before I could write this review. The book left me feeling unsure. I really wanted to like it—it had a lot of really good elements. However, it took me a while to determine what I thought of it.
The setting is really excellent. It’s the future. There is little water, and it has to be strictly rationed. The world has become overpopulated, cities expanding and expanding until they almost touch one another. America is now essentially one giant city. We don’t know what year it is; they stopped counting. Everything is now run by “agencies,” all under the control of the Facilitator (or is it?). Even the smallest of offences can lead to your “arrest,” which essentially means your disappearance. It’s all very Orwellian in the best way. One of the greatest things about it was as I was reading, I became increasingly uncomfortable realizing how all too possible this future was.
We’re introduced to the novel’s heroine when she is four years old and has been abandoned by her parents. She has a hard childhood and adolescence—even for someone growing up in this dystopia. However, for the most part, the story takes place when Nadia is an adult.
Nadia takes pleasure in her own little rebellions. These, however, slowly lead up to her own impending arrest. Nadia is alerted to the danger that awaits her, and takes off before she can be apprehended. She becomes a fugitive, and must lie and manipulate her way out of the megacity. The problem is, however, that she no longer has a valid ID card and when they stopped counting the years they also stopped calling places by name. How is she going to navigate her way? She has a notion in her head that she must get to a place called Lighthouse Island that she saw on TV. Somehow she believes that she will finally be reunited with her parents there. Along the way she meets James Orotov from Demolitions, an amateur cartographer. Their relationship grows in an odd way, but it is befitting of their world and circumstances.
Jiles’ writing is incredibly beautiful and thoughtful. I often found myself stopping to admire the prose and thinking, Man, this woman can write. When describing the world of the past which Nadia reads about in novels, there is one section that really stuck out to me. Jiles was describing the the freedom of those that came before Nadia—things they wouldn’t have even thought twice about:
There seemed to be no regulations on anything: the watts of lightbulbs, shoe sizes, and placing of television screens. They had no ration allowances. They owned cats and dogs without the permission of the Department of Livestock and Companion Animals. There were times and places where there were no people: at midnight, among mountains. It was a world of swimming pools and cybertheft and malls, lakes and pets and horses and cows, cowboys, free-running bison, marshes, rain, fog, pear trees, snow, sailing, ships, men in tights. They were spendthrift and wasteful and neurotic. They had devoured the world and left nothing but a dry husk for Nadia Stepan. (pg 41)
The style of the novel fit completely with it hopeless, flat, forlorn tone of the story. The lack of quotation marks, however, was a stylistic choice I understood, but didn’t enjoy. Although I could appreciate the beauty in Jiles’ story and her many stylistic choices, I didn’t always find myself connecting with them.
The characters are really interesting and complex…Unfortunately, I never felt like I really got to know them. I knew about them—their quirks, their talents, their likes, and dislikes—but I didn’t feel connected to them. For me, that is a key aspect in my enjoyment of a novel, and it was missing in this one. The characters seemed to be just curious people that I observed from a distance, only interested in their fate out of mere curiosity. I never felt emotionally involved in the story.
SPOILER (ISH, BUT ONLY KIND OF)
The end also felt a little off to me. There was a somewhat uncomfortable shift focus, with a hopeful ending. I don’t usually begrudge a happy (ish) ending. I usually prefer them! But in this case, it felt a bit discordant with the tone of the novel. In the forsaken world that Jiles puts forth before us, this ending doesn’t seem to fit. It felt to me like James and Nadia should have been more star-crossed than they ended up being.
All told, this was a beautifully written novel set in a masterfully created world peopled with very interesting characters. It was quite lovely and thought-provoking. Without feeling connected to the characters and their fates, however, I found myself losing interest.
If you’re looking for dystopian mind candy, this isn’t the novel for you. It’s nothing like the popular The Hunger Games or Divergent. It’s more akin to the stark and cerebral Nineteen Eighty-Four. If you like literary fiction though, it’s definitely worth a read.
About Paulette Jiles
Paulette Jiles is a poet and memoirist. She is the author of Cousins, a memoir, and the bestselling novels Enemy Women and Stormy Weather. She lives on a ranch near San Antonio, Texas.
Paulette’s Tour Stops
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Beth is the founder and editor of Fuelled by Fiction. She is a twenty-something east coast Canadian girl who loves writing about books and feminism.