Book Review – Vanishing Girls

I’m back!!! I highly doubt anyone noticed my absence but just in case you wondered what I’ve been doing for the past seven months…I wrote my dissertation, graduated, moved to London, started working and have been gradually wrapping my head around the fact I’m now meant to be a grown-up. Rest assured, I’ve been reading and watching things voraciously during my hiatus and I have a lot to write about. So withblogout further ado, I’ll get right down to it.

Lauren Oliver’s ‘Vanishing Girls’ got under my skin from almost the very first page and I read the whole book in just one afternoon. I bought a copy from the amazing Strand Bookstore in the West Village (which, incidentally, is now home to the famous bench from ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ – go see!) on a whim during a recent trip to NYC, and hadn’t previously heard anything about this book. I believe, as luck would have it, ‘Vanishing Girls’ was released just a few days ago. I’d previously really enjoyed Oliver’s writing (see my glowing review of Delirium here), so was hoping to read something equally compelling and involving. I wasn’t disappointed. At its bare bones, ‘Vanishing Girls’ explores the complex relationship between two sisters – Nick and Dara – following a traumatic car accident. The obligatory YA love triangle, drama and angst are all present and accounted for, but that’s certainly not to say this novel is a cliché. In fact, Oliver seablog3mlessly blends multiple genres while convincingly building the intriguing relationship between the two sisters, and simultaneously portraying their complicated friendship with childhood friend, Parker. It initially appears the presentation of sisterhood is going to be a little reductive with the two girls lazily represented as polar opposites (the prim sister and the wild sister trope à la Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield in Sweet Valley High comes to mind). Yet Oliver gradually allows her characters to shed their archetypal skins and reveal multiple dimensions. To put it very simply, the characters all just feel real. I don’t have a sister, but I was pleased to see this relationship being examined artistically; friendships between females, as I’ve mentioned before, are regrettably highly underrepresented in text and film.

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“That’s what life is, pretty much: full of holes and tangles and ways to get stuck. Uncomfortable and itchy. A present you never asked for, never wanted, never chose. A present you’re supposed to be excited to wear, day after day, even when you’d rather stay in bed and do nothing.”

Having previously identified my personal distaste for frustrating dripping tap narratives, here it’s pulled off really successfully. The book is full of secrets, twists and turns that kept me flipping the pages, but questions are answered fairly frequently and strings tied up while new ones are tantalizingly created. This means the reader is voluntarily gripped and engaged, too immersed in the world to put the book down, rather than being left furiously tearing through pages, held hostage by a promised revelation that keeps irritatingly being alluded to. Part epistolary, non-linear, and with competing dual narratives, the novel is intricate and its various interlocking strands and flashbacks all lead up to a hugely satisfying conclusion. You won’t realise just how skilful the narrative is until you read back over the book (which I had the good fortune to do on my plane journey back to London the very next day). It’s extremely smart in terms of its structure and, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to see that conversations and scenes throughout the book have a multitude of layers, meanings and interpretations. I was astounded to find that ‘Vanishing Girls’ can be read in two completely different ways. Not knowing the reason for this, and reading the book blind the first time, is so fundamental to enjoying the story that for once I won’t spoil it. Just go read it. Then read it again and you’ll see what I mean.

“Sometimes people stop loving you. And that’s the kind of darkness that never gets fixed, no matter how many moons rise again, filling the sky with a weak approximation of light.”

My one criticism would be that the missing sister B-plot (the disappearance of nine year old girl Madeline Snow) felt a little shoehorned in. I understand that Oliver was probably trying to draw parallels between different sisterly relationships, add some extra thematic depth or even just increase the level of suspense but, for me, that story never really went anywhere and didn’t naturally coalesce with rest of the novel. Indeed, the thriller/mystery aspect was less interesting to me than the character studies at play. Personal preference, maybe, but I felt emotional bonds were really giphythe crux of the novel and, judging by the time spent by the author on developing and fleshing out those relationships in comparison to time spent on the Madeline Snow storyline, that was also where Oliver’s interest was really located when writing the book. In this balance between emotions and mystery, the tone of Oliver’s ‘Vanishing Girls’ is comparable to E. Lockhart’s ‘We Were Liars’, and if you enjoyed this I’d recommend that – and vice versa. However, while the title alone evokes ‘Gone Girl’, and the missing person subplot certainly is superficially comparable, that’s where the similarities end.

‘Vanishing Girls’ isn’t the fantastic thriller some might be looking for, and if Oliver intended to write a teen version of ‘Gone Girl’ (which I don’t think she did, though that’s what some reviewers seem to imply), then she failed. What it is, instead, is a nuanced and moving portrait of sisterhood, guilt, and the scars you can’t see.

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Book Review – If I Stay (major spoilers ahoy)

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I stayed up reading ‘If I Stay’ by Gayle Forman until the early hours of the morning, unable to emotionally disengage from the novel until I knew how it ended. ‘If I Stay’ fundamentally revolves around a choice: after a horrific car accident, a comatose teenage girl (Mia) must decide whether to die, or whether to wake up and live a life in which her mother, father and younger brother all died in the crash. My mother said something interesting when she heard what I was reading – “teens find it much easier to read about death”. Critics (and there are plenty of them) often say YA literature is mushy, easy to read and full of the sort of wish-fulfillment adults supposedly ought to give up as a sign of their maturity. There are, of course, books like this in the YA canon, just as there are in the literature marketed at any other age group. Yet I’ve found that YA literature often focuses unabashedly and apologetically on the ‘big’ concepts – love, death, life, loss. Their relative lack of subtlety in theme doesn’t make them less worthy of admiration. Just the opposite, in my opinion. Most adults wouldn’t want to think about the devastating concept at the heart of ‘If I Stay’. Yet, as my mother astutely pointed out, teens seem to enjoy stretching their feelings to the limit. This passion isn’t something that should be criticized.

“Sometimes you make choices in life and sometimes choices make you.”

“I just wanted to tell you that I understand if you go. It’s okay if you have to leave us. It’s okay if you want to stop fighting.”

blogif1 blogif6Despite its harrowing central premise, ‘If I Stay’ somehow actually doesn’t veer into the maudlin or the mawkish, a testament to the author’s skill. It would have been all too easy for Forman to twist the knife throughout the novel, but she resists. Of course, some moments are unavoidably traumatic. Having initially believed that her little brother (Teddy) had survived the crash, Mia discovers that he has in fact died in a nearby hospital. This horrendous realisation sends her body crashing, signalling the shift in her decision towards giving up and dying too. Yet she clings on.blogif3 The point is that the novel isn’t about death but about life. Mia hovers between the two states, ruminating often on how easy it would be for her to die rather than face the anguish of living having suffered through such a tragic accident and the sudden death of her entire immediate family. The novel is full of flashbacks, attempting to highlight to the reader what this loss would actually entail for the protagonist. Yet these flashbacks also illustrate another point: that life should be celebrated. Mia’s relationship with her best friend (Kim), her love story with her musician boyfriend (Adam), and her interactions with her parents, brother and grandparents are all given extra weight because of the predicament she finds herself in. Small moments are raised from the mundane to the sublime.

Given even more precedence than her friendships and relationships is Mia’s love of classical music, blogif2specifically the cello. Music in this book seems to be a metaphor for life itself, or some sort of powerful force; it is almost a character in itself throughout the novel. Music brought Mia’s parents together; it was the catalyst for Mia and Adam’s love story; and it almost tore them apart. Mia sings a song her father composed to her baby brother, and characters discuss the songs they dream will be played at their funeral. Mia notices that the song playing on the car radio before the crash continues playing afterwards. Life, and music, go on even after tragedy and death.

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As you can probably tell from the abundance of gifs, ‘If I Stay’ has been adapted into a movie starring Chloë Grace Moretz. Get ahead of the game and read the book now! Tissues advised, yet despite a multitude of deaths – it’s surprisingly uplifting.

Book Review – Ketchup Clouds

blogk2“Ketchup Clouds” is Annabel Pitcher’s follow-up novel to her lauded debut “My Sister Lives On The Mantelpiece”, and it just this month won the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Young Adult novel. Indeed, as the best young adult novels do, “Ketchup Clouds” explores universal teenage feelings through one teen’s specific experience. In “Ketchup Clouds”, Annabel Pitcher employs an epistolary structure for an intriguing spin on the coming-of-age tale so predominant in young adult fiction. The protagonist, using the pseudonym “Zoe”, writes letters to a “Dear Mr Harris”, a death row inmate. Zoe’s own confession of guilt is teased out through her correspondence with this convicted murderer. While this epistolary framework is commonplace in literature (see Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and Lionel Shriver’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin”), the use of a criminal as the recipient of the narrator’s messages seems innovative. Yet at times, unfortunately, this structure feels more like a gimmick. The parallels between the two characters – the man who killed his wife (whom Zoe refers to as “dear Stu” as the two gradually ostensibly become familiarized), and the guilt-ridden teenager – could have been expanded upon for a much more profound rumination on redemption and the loss of innocence. Unfortunately, we never hear from Mr Harris: his character remains a device, a mere addressee at the top of Zoe’s letters. While the fact that Mr Harris is the only person to whom Zoe feels she can express her dark secret demonstrates to the reader the protagonist’s intense feelings of guilt, it seems a shame not to explore the bond between the killer and the kid further. Does he reply? What does he think of her predicament? Is Zoe’s level of trust in her dear Stu reciprocated? Perhaps curiosity killed the cat, but I couldn’t help but feel this element of the novel would have proved a little more interesting than the actual narrative.

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On a superficial level “Ketchup Clouds” shares similarities with books like Anne Cassidy’s “Looking for JJ” and Jonathan Trigell’s “Boy A”, both of which also deal with young adults searching for identity following mistakes made at a young age. The epistolary nature of the novel also led me to draw comparisons with Shriver’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin”. Through Zoe’s stream of consciousness-style narration (which actually seems a little too child-like for a fifteen year old – “FYI”) and her romantic entanglements, we are reminded countless times that Zoe is very young. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that “Ketchup Clouds” at times becomes bogged down in its soap opera-esque love triangle. Perhaps this is a bias on account of personal taste: I could have done with more about Zoe’s guilt and the aftermath of her crime, and far less of her hmming and ahhhing about which boy she fancies more. Zoe is certainly far less complex than Kevin, or even his mother, and the book suffers for it. Pitcher is, nevertheless, a master of suspense and of the dripping tap narrative. Although the reader doesn’t discover the truth behind the death Zoe is implicated in until almost the very close of the novel, the story doesn’t drag on. The author expertly tantalizes the reader by revealing details about the nature of Zoe’s crime excruciatingly slowly, keeping the reader in the dark until almost the last possible moment. While one might imagine this method might invite anti-climactic feelings, the final revelation is satisfying enough to avoid being characterized as a cop-out.

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Ultimately I welcome any attempt to break free of genre constraints and to revitalize well-tread literary territory (in this case: the pits and falls of growing up). Pitcher’s take on the trials of adolescence is refreshingly inventive. To explore teenage life through the eyes of a teenage killer is to explore a very narrow teenage experience; yet the feelings of isolation, guilt, disassociation, and confusion are still experiences any adolescent can relate to. Doesn’t everyone feel at times that they’re hiding their real self from the world, afraid of what might happen if someone discovers who they really are?

Book Review – Half Bad

bloghaWitches and magic are popular motifs in fiction, rivaled only by the recently revived penchant for vampires. It’s seemingly impossible to review a book about witches without mentioning the “Harry Potter” juggernaut, which has defined the witch/wizard genre for almost two decades. Yet witches are also the basis of more recent fictional endeavors, including the YA fantasy “Caster Chronicles” series, the 2013 mini-series “American Horror Story: Coven”, and the “All Souls” trilogy. The rich mythological basis for witches means that “Harry Potter” does not have a creative monopoly on this sub-group of fiction, and there’s plenty more material still to be mined from the backlog of witch folklore. Indeed Sally Green’s “Half Bad”, which revolves around witches living in modern England, doesn’t feel like a mere rehashing of the fiction that’s come before it. While its concept isn’t strikingly original (a primordial battle between “Black” and “White” Witches, and a protagonist who bridges the gap between the two sides), its innovation is derived from its brave decision not to shy away from the macabre. blogha4Children and teenagers have demonstrated innumerable times that they’re not afraid to handle some pretty dark stuff in their literature (just off the top of my head: children massacring each other in a televised gladiator-style contest). Even so, “Half Bad” is particularly gruesome and disturbing, its narrative encompassing scenes of physical torture, mutilation, murder, self-harm, and even cannibalism. In one exceptionally chilling scene the fourteen-year-old protagonist is held down while three White Witches (the supposed ‘good guys’) brutally carve “BW” (for ‘Black Witch’) into his back. The scene is described in the first person as Nathan drifts in and out of consciousness, the reader experiencing and sharing his pain. Nathan is also kept in a cage, viciously persecuted, and burnt with acid, all due to his identity as a Half Code (half White Witch and half Black Witch). “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” this is certainly not.

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The premise of “Half Bad” itself is nightmare-inducing. An orphaned boy, Nathan, son of both the most evil Black Witch that’s ever existed and a White Witch (who died in mysterious circumstances), lives in fear that at any moment his Black Witch attributes might manifest and cause him to be executed by the ruthless Council and their cut-throat Hunters. Imagine Harry Potter is the son of Lord Voldemort and Lily, is chained up in the cupboard under the stairs, never gets that nice little letter from Hogwarts, and has to escape the Death Eaters all on his own. That’s the sort of predicament Nathan finds himself in. Yet the fact that the stakes are so high adds a certain realism to the fantasy novel. Despite Nathan’s magical healing ability, he constantly gets hurt. The danger is palpable and keeps the pace breathless.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of “Half Bad” is the moral ambiguity it explores. blogha3The White Witches and Black Witches are established as polar opposites – the former good and the latter bad. This antithetical set-up is common, seen most vividly in Glinda the Good Witch  and the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”, and to a lesser extent by the Death Eaters and the Order of the Phoenix in “Harry Potter”. Yet in “Half Bad” both the good and bad witches are almost immediately revealed to be neither wholly good nor bad. There are no genuine villains and heroes in this book; the reader roots for Nathan, but at times Green throws things into the narrative that confuse even this basic line of thinking. Nathan occasionally acts in such a manner that the reader is forced to question whether he might indeed grow up to become evil after all. In some ways I hope Green goes down this bold route; to identify and sympathize with a young adult narrator, and to then witness their growth from persecuted child to cold-blood killer over the course of the trilogy would be pioneering. Pardon yet another Harry Potter comparison, but it would be like thinking you’re rooting for a Harry and watching him, aghast, evolve before your eyes into a Voldemort. blogha95The dichotomy between good and bad witches is also the basis of “Beautiful Creatures”, in which the protagonist’s magical powers will be claimed for either Light or Dark on her sixteenth birthday. Yet in “Half Bad”, this transformation isn’t just a matter of self-identification but a matter of life and death. In other points of interest, Nathan’s relationships with his half-brother, Arran, and the White Whet, Annalise, add further dimensions to his character. The obligatory YA love triangle is vaguely set in place by the novel’s conclusion, though with a refreshing new spin which I’d rather not spoil. I also enjoyed the fact that the protagonist was a male witch, in a move away from the traditional depiction of witches as female.

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If you’re looking for something saccharine or easy to digest, don’t read “Half Bad”. It’s pretty unsettling. It’s also, however, totally absorbing. Green’s protagonist has barely begun his journey when the first part of the trilogy ends and we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of answers and revelations. Nathan is no Harry Potter. Something tells me he won’t be the sort of character that responds to Avada Kedavra (the killing curse) with Expelliarmus (the disarming charm). Something else tells me this series won’t end with the sentence “All was well”. The next book is due out in Spring 2015 so if you like your YA fiction dark and depressing you’ve got a whole year to get reading this one. No excuses.

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Book Review – Delirium

blogde1In “Delirium”, Lauren Oliver envisions a future in which love is a disease (termed amor deliria nervosa or ‘the deliria’) mandatorily cured at eighteen years of age by an invasive lobotomy-style procedure. Oliver’s novel taps into the huge demand in the YA market for dystopian fiction and the author astutely links her dystopian premise with another ostensible YA prerequisite – the star-crossed teenage romance. “Delirium” shares huge similarities with Ally Condie’s “Matched” (which I reviewed here) yet expands upon Condie’s imagined obligatory matching process and her consequent rumination on free will, with a stronger, more ambitious concept  with wider-reaching implications: the medical diagnosis of love as a severe affliction and the root of all conflict and unhappiness. Oliver depicts a United States devoid of passion – whether it be passion for a romantic partner, a friend, music, literature, colours, a hobby, or even a family member. Perhaps the most nightmarish aspect of Oliver’s vision is the passive acquiescence of the citizens, who give up their ability to feel sadness along with their ability to feel anything at all.

‘Hate isn’t the most dangerous thing…Indifference is.’

In the futuristic society in “Delirium” William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet” is on the high school curriculum in order to educate students about the dangers of the deliria: it serves as a cautionary tale. Dancing is banned and dreaming is rare. Those infected by love are ‘cured’ against their will, and are depicted thrashing like rabies victims against their physical restraints until a portion of their brain is forcibly excised. In Oliver’s society our perception of love is turned completely on its head. Rather elevating love as the transcendent goal most people aim for and feel incomplete without, Oliver presents love as a mental illness which impedes rational and ordinary function. Oliver’s depiction doesn’t stray far from reality, and the author clearly recognizes that the more relatable the nightmarish world, the scarier it is. As Spike Jonze writes in “Her”, falling in love ‘is a crazy thing to do. It’s like a socially acceptable form of insanity.’ The inextricable nature of love and obsession are indeed often acknowledged within our own society and the chemical nature of desire really isn’t all that different from any other kind of chemical imbalance. Dopamine leads to attraction. The ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin leads to attachment. The colloquial term ‘lovesick’ demonstrates the synonymic nature of ‘love’ and ‘madness’: it is, in its early stages, as physical a reaction as it is emotional, despite our attempts to romanticize the notion.

‘The most dangerous sicknesses are those that make us believe we are well.’

In one sense, “Delirium” is comparable with Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. In this film, the fictional pseudo-scientific company Lacuna Inc offers heartbroken adults the chance to erase memories of their loved ones in order to ease their emotional turmoil. Yet halfway through his procedure one man realizes the pain is worth keeping the good memories of the relationship. Likewise, “Delirium” is a proponent of passionate love (along with the sweaty palms, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, sadness, and other pathological symptoms that are part of the package).

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The medical cure administeredblogde8 in “Delirium” is reminiscent of the aversion therapy ‘Ludovico technique’ in Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”, a 1962 novella which also deals with the issue of free will v the state’s authority. Similarly, in his 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Ken Kesey details various controversial psychiatric procedures, namely electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and lobotomization. Oliver also clearly borrows from the sordid history of psychosurgery for her shadowy and noblogde7n-specific descriptions of the procedure in “Delirium”. It must be noted that the most terrifying aspect of dystopian fiction is the fact that the most ghoulish and terrifying practices included within the dystopian corpus are actually borrowed liberally from humanity’s history. Indeed, it’s probably impossible to imagine humans doing worse things to one another than have already been done at some point and somewhere in the world. On a more cheery note, the central romance is squee-worthy. A ‘squee’, FYI, is defined by urban dictionary as ‘the cry of the rabid fangirl’ and looks something like this:

blogde9There’s no trope more popular in YA fiction than lovers torn apart by external circumstances (cough and so the lion fell in love with the lamb cough) as fangirls love nothing more than rooting for a seemingly hopeless case. Oliver, thankfully, manages to find a fresh set of obstacles which provide protagonists Lena and Alex with plenty of conflict. Namely, Lena is a seventeen year old who wants to follow the rules and be cured, and Alex is an ‘Invalid’ (an uncured member of the resistance from the Wilds). In addition to this central romance, Oliver fleshes out an interesting dynamic between Lena and her childhood best friend Hana, with both girls realizing that post-cure their attachment to one another will be non-existent.

The best YA literature doesn’t patronise its audience. Teenage readers are as capable of recognizing weak characterisation and underdeveloped relationships as their adult counterparts. A great YA book should explore relevant and serious themes and treat its readers with respect. Yet at the same time the best YA literature isn’t afraid to be sincere and earnest, and to wear its heart and its message on its sleeve. The message of “Delirium” is serious but simple: all the pain and rejection and humiliation of growing up and feeling things is better than feeling nothing at all.

 ‘Love is merely a madness; and, I tell you, deserves as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do; and the reason why they are not so punish’d and cured is that the lunacy is so
ordinary that the whippers are in love too.’ – Shakespeare

‘Well, love is insanity. The ancient Greeks knew that. It is the taking over of a rational and lucid mind by delusion and self-destruction. You lose yourself, you have no power over yourself, you can’t even think straight.’ – Marilyn French

‘Isn’t what we mean by ‘falling in love’ a kind of sickness and craziness, an illusion, a blindness to what the loved person is really like.’ – Freud

‘Love is a serious mental disease.’ – Plato

‘Love is a madness.’ – Socrates

Book Review – Golden Boy

bloggbAbigail Tarttelin’s second novel, “Golden Boy”, joins an astonishingly small quantity of fictional representations of  intersex individuals. Despite the approximate statistic that one in 1,666 people are born neither exclusively XY or XX, those who have some form of sex chromosome “anomaly” are appallingly underrepresented in literature and film. Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex”, Kathleen Winter’s “Annabel”, and Lucía Puenzo’s film “XXY” are three notable examples from an extremely meager sub-group. Tarttelin’s eponymous ‘Golden Boy’ is Max Walker, a popular and attractive teenager who hides from almost everyone he knows the fact that he possesses both female and male genitalia. Max, who has always identified as a heterosexual male, has generally ignored his condition and what it might mean for his future. A horrific and brutal assault near the opening of the novel  and the ensuing cracks that appear in Max’s carefully-constructed façade force him to confront and question his identity.

‘Science is unreliable. It can’t tell you who you are or what you’ll want or how you’ll feel.’

At its heart, “Golden Boy” is  a coming-of-age story; yet it is also a family drama, a romance, and a sociopolitical statement. It raises important questions about gender and sex, personal choice, and intersex rights.bloggb3 Tarttelin references the disturbing medical practice that sees parents of intersex babies decide to raise their child as a particular gender, and sees doctors operate on the infant before they’re old enough to know their own name (let alone their gender identity) to remove the unwanted anatomical features. Using Max’s parents as mouthpieces for the two opposing sides of this controversial issue, Tarttelin falls down heavily on the side of Max’s father, who considers early sex reassignment surgery as at best, unnecessary, and at worst, genital mutilation. As Tarttelin contends in “Golden Boy” – why must one identify as any gender at all? Why must we live in a world of binary genders in which those who do not fit the physical “norm”  are made to feel deviant, abnormal, and abhorrent? In “XXY”, Alex Kraken, the intersex protagonist, ultimately decides against both surgery and hormone treatment, and subsequently refuses to conform to rigid societal definitions of gender. I won’t spoil the journey Max embarks upon and the destination he reaches – I highly recommend reading it yourself to experience it alongside him.

‘It takes strength to be proud of yourself and to accept yourself when you know that you have something out of the ordinary about you.’

Although divided into multiple narrative voices, “Golden Boy” undoubtedly belongs to Max. Yet his story and his experience also belong to anyone else who has ever felt marginalized, or anyone who feels like they don’t fit into the categories that have been laid out for them.

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Book Review – Matched

blogma‘Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

Ally Condie’s “Matched” is yet another YA dystopian offering, once again dealing with an oppressive government regime and a teenaged girl who opposes in some form her subjugation by the state.  This territory has certainly been well-covered of late (see “Divergent”, “The Hunger Games”, “Pretties” and “Delirium”, to name just a few). Yet while “Matched” is indeed in some ways a patchwork of derivative elements, it utilizes its borrowed materials well to produce a highly enjoyable, if at times familiar, addition to the YA dystopian oeuvre. The first of a trilogy, “Matched” is narrated by seventeen year old Cassia Reyes and details the events following her ‘matching’ ceremony, an obligatory process by which citizens are paired off and socially organised by the authorities.

There are clear parallels to be drawn between Condie’s “Matched” and several classics of the dystopian genre. In Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel “Fahrenheit 451” books are outlawed  – inspired by both the Nazi book burnings and Stalin’s ‘Great Purge’, in which writers and poets were arrested and executed as a form of ideological repression. Comparably, in the futuristic soblogma1ciety in “Matched”, the government has culled archaic examples of poetry, music, art and literature, leaving only one hundred appropriate (non-incendiary) choices of each category preserved.  Cassia memorizes illegal copies of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”; this preservation of prohibited literature is both a liberating and highly perilous act of political dissent. Additionally, the deterioration of written language in correlation with the digitisation of text is reminiscent of the advent of newspeak in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, an anti-evolutionary trimming of the English language, which alsblogma2o aims to curtail and impede written expression.”Matched” perhaps shares the largest amount of thematic similarities with Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel “Brave New World”. Huxley depicts a supposed utopian society, stabilized by and structured upon population control, artificial reproduction and predetermined social and economic positions. In Huxley’s vision, recreational sex is fundamental to social cohesion and the nuclear family is considered both abhorrent and obsolete. “Matched” subverts this design and instead places the pater familias at the crux of society. While the society in “Matched”, then, is antithetical to the society portrayed in “Brave New World”,  Condie, like her dystopian predecessors, is particularly concerned with the concepts of free will, individualism and freedom of artistic expression.blogma4 The best dystopias are those which are eerily familiar, those which the reader is able to understand and inhabit without stretching his or her imagination beyond the bounds of credibility and possibility. Orwell predicted 24-hour surveillance; Huxley prophesied the gradual irrelevance and eradication of the family unit; Margaret Atwood in “The Handmaid’s Tale” warned women not to become complacent in their just decades-old professional and personal liberty. What makes these authors’ imagined worlds terrifying is their relatability. Just as Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy exaggerates the contemporary penchant for reality television and celebrity, and Scott Westerfeld’s “Uglies” series satirizes cosmetic surgery and superficial conformity, Condie seems to reference the modern dating world and the perceived necessity of marital union. The mathematical nature of the matching process is not so distant from online dating. For example, look how disturbingly similar the dating app ‘Tinder’ is to the world Condie has created…

blogma6 blogma5The society at the heart of “Matched” is ultimately a mishmash of other people’s fictional nightmarish worlds (see the glaring reference to the red and blue pills found in “The Matrix”), with the arranged marriage process the most interesting and original feature of the novel. Condie includes the mandatory YA love triangle and the coming-of-age of her heroine, and yet manages to construct from this both a believable and touching romance and an intimate character study. “Matched” is very engaging and worth a read – despite the sense that we’ve seen most of this before. Look out for my reviews of the sequels “Crossed” and “Reached” in the near future.

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