When I started reading this book back in May, there weren’t yet any reviews and I was prepared to dig deep to write a detailed review. Since then, though, fellow Goodreader Brandon has aptly summed up the story and its strong points to a degree where I feel I’d only retread his insights. Still, I’d like to talk about some of the things I thought about this finely wrought, though occasionally frustrating debut novel by Ms. Donald. [note: this review was originally published on Goodreads]
The light sci-fi dystopia of near-future London is like looking through a funhouse mirror where things are mildly distorted but recognizable. The worst, most dehumanizing aspects of Capitalism have been repurposed here as the Death Value, in which the best and brightest are automatically pushed forward to the best schools and fast tracked to start producing big bucks in order to spend big bucks. It’s a feedback loop of self-imposed slavery, where people are located in residential Zones according to their Death Value, which fluctuate depending on a number of factors such as purchasing power, social media activity, and excessive spending on whatever for the sake of national pride.
As Brandon mentioned in his review,
Our lead character lacks the modification that allows everyone else to have a value-added user experience. With it, clothes, art, the (artificial) sky exist in new and incredible colors, all over, always. In consequence the world around and outside, the trees and the sea and the everything else not yet painted over or packaged, has become grey and threatening. This is because the modifications only permit licensed content to be seen—and the embryonic modification doesn’t let anyone opt-out.
Our main character is like a superhero. By day, she works as a stock broker in a soulless corporation filled with frat bros and the arch-typical sexist boss from hell. By night, she locks herself away in a secret room in her apartment and paints with a single color, a color only she could make. One day, she spots a Zero, so-called because they live outside the framework the government regulates and promotes. She might not have noticed him, except for an eye-catching yellow scarf tossed around his neck. Thus begins the call to adventure, but this is a subversion of a hero’s journey. Or perhaps a diversion altogether.
The first half of the book sets up key relationships between the main character and her best friend and colleague, Kathy; her former professor, who encouraged critical thinking and subversion through her art; her mother, a doctor; a romantic interest, Robert, and Robert’s transgendered friend, Adrienne. A haze of alcoholism blunts real connection with these people. Our hero resorts to sarcastic quips and dry wit to survive the sinking feeling that people are sheeple. There’s a tawdry, almost tabloid feeling to this fictional reality. The casual superficiality of most human interaction is brought to the forefront and it stings the eyes to read. No one seems to say what they actually mean or mean what they say.
When our hero has her revelation, we’re thrusted into part two, in which the narration shifts from a third person perspective to her voice. This worked…less well for me. It reminded me of Jonathan Lethem’s change of narration in The Fortress of Solitude, even though these books have little else in common. I’m all for experimenting with voice, but there has to be a reason to switch halfway through the book, and I didn’t get quite enough interior insight to make this as successful a transition as it could have been.
Generally speaking, the second half has some brilliant moments that are marred by uneven pacing and what seems like a rush to get to the denouement at the end. Conveniences and contrivances for plot purposes are a bit too tidy. I don’t want to reveal too many spoilers, but the main character’s automatic acceptance into the burgeoning underground group, or resistance, comes across as way too easy. I got strong Mary Sue vibes in that our hero is brilliant, but damaged. A victim who is the only one who can get people to open their eyes. Of course, something has to be special about her, otherwise we have no reason to follow her story.
Still, it’s maddening when she is the only character who isn’t color-blind and is the only artist, and of course her art must be brilliant, like Banksy, but a potent symbol for revolution. She’s intelligent and witty and apparently attractive with a strong sense of justice and a disdain for the injustice of the system in which they all live and a definitive drinking problem and a well-spring of feelings so strong that every strong emotion she has is almost inevitably described as almost bursting through her chest. Aliens, this is not. A 3-dimensional character is there, strong and true, but there isn’t much room for growth or change on an interior plane. Shaving one’s head and going by a different name and confronting addiction come across as placeholders for real, deeper change.
The prose is vivid and cunning throughout. Occasionally so many metaphors are in play that they collectively lose their potency. Careful attention to individual lines and phrasings give off the whiff of purple prose, and the profligacy of adverbs will work for some people, but I felt some light editing would clean these sections up. Dialogue zings, but rings less true in part two when it devolves into shapeless banter. Like the switching of POV, these stylistic choices will work for some and won’t for others.
It’s not a “difficult” book, but I personally didn’t find it conducive to reading straight through in one sitting. Like Brandon, I had to confront this book piecemeal, sometimes leaving it alone for days at a time. There are sharp edges here and it can cut you. It’s unapologetic reimagining of our own fictional existence. It’s asking you to open your eyes and to see, to really see what life can be.
I also recommend reading Rachel’s great blog @ https://rachelfdonald.wordpress.com