This is a young adult dystopia that readers either love or hate (I explain why under Discussion, below), and I’m totally in the “I loved it” camp. The story is told in the form of entries in the diary of Juliette Ferrars, a 17-year-old who has been imprisoned by “The Reestablishment,” the government faction that is supposed to renew the dying society. But, as with most dystopias, the new group in control has become drunk on power and despotic.
In this future scenario, the ecosystem has become severely distorted by human abuse, and one of the effects is that some people have developed “special abilities” that are not normal. In Juliette’s case, if she touches anyone, that person will die. Once, when overcome by a desire to help a little boy, without forethought she picked him up with fatal effect, and that is in part why she is incarcerated. But the main reason is that her own parents turned her in as “a freak of nature.”
As the story begins, Juliette has been in solitary confinement for 264 days, and she has just been told she is getting a roommate. Her roommate is not another female, however, but a male, one who is disarmingly handsome, and furthermore, one that she knows.
Before long, the two prisoners, Juliette and Adam, are brought before Warner, the cruel leader of their district. Warner tells Juliette he wants her to perform torture for him, and assigns Adam to guard her. The dynamic among the three of them intensifies, and the dangers rocket out of control.
Discussion: Because this book is in the form of Juliette’s diary, the text appears as if it consists of actual entries, including cross-outs, stream of consciousness, and many metaphorical expressions of feelings. You may possibly recall that in the past I have complained about authors whose language is pretty at the expense of meaning. In this case, I do not. The reason is that, if the voice in a book is that of an omniscient narrator, then I have an expectation of being able to derive understanding from a rational interpretation of the sentences. In Shatter Me, the voice comes from the writing in a girl’s diary, so I have no objection to the occasional use of poetic images, exaggeration, or incomplete thoughts to reflect the actual way Juliette is thinking. Take this example, describing when Adam is confiding something to Juliette:
“His eyes are full of pain like I’ve never seen them before. He parts his lips. Presses them together. Changes his mind a million times until his words tumble through the air between us. … His lips are spelling secrets and my ears are spilling ink, staining my skin with his stories. … I’ve searched the world for all the right words and my mouth is full of nothing.”
Is there any question what she means? And is there any question that her manner of describing what happened conveys more than verisimilitude would do? Straight narrative would neutralize the depiction; the aesthetic montage of this scene evokes the emotion and intensity of the moment.
In my opinion, Mafi’s use of sensorial allusions lends an enhanced tonal range to her words, and thus helps breach the gap between the reader and the text, and expand the limitations of textual realism.
In addition, this story employs a most interesting trope. Because Juliette has not been able to touch anyone or be touched her whole life, she has been avoided and reviled, and is starving for affection and the touch of another human being. The only relationships she could have were with characters in books:
“I lived love and loss through stories threaded in history; I experienced adolescence by association. My world is one interwoven web of words, stringing limb to limb, bone to sinew, thoughts and images all together. I am a being comprised of letters, a character created by sentences, a figment of imagination formed through fiction.”
But when Juliette finds out that miraculously there are those who can touch her (maybe those that feel love toward her?), she is reborn:
“My knees are knocking together and my heart is beating so fast I don’t understand why it’s still working. He’s kissing away the pain, the hurt, the years of self-loathing, the insecurities, the dashed hopes for a future I always pictured as obsolete. … The intensity of our bodies could shatter these glass walls.”
As I argued above, these passages that are not strictly dispassionate reporting help us understand Juliette’s astonishment over the sensations of intimate contact, in the only terms she has known until this time:
“. . .I’m licked by a million flames of wanting so desperate I can hardly inhale. He’s a hot bath, a short breath, 5 days of summer pressed into 5 fingers writing stories on my body.”
His lips are at my ear and he says nothing at all, but I melt until I’m a handful of hot butter dripping down his body. I want to eat every minute of this moment.”
Other reviewers have complained about the slow pace of Juliette’s physical relationship once she discovers she can be touched, but given the fact that even a stroke on her arm, or holding her hand, is a momentous and exciting new sensation for her, I didn’t find the pacing inappropriate or unrealistic.
Finally, there is criticism with the fact that, especially in the final section of the book, there is too much resemblance to X-Men, and an unwelcome mixing of the genres of dystopia and the paranormal. The X-Men, for those unfamiliar with them, are a superhero team made up of both men and women, created by Marvel Comics. They possess special powers because of radiation exposure. A Professor Xavier takes it upon himself to train the X-Men to use their powers for the good of humanity. While indeed there is some likeness, comics are designed to provide a different type of gratification than prose; there is a long distance between a “similar idea” used in a comic, and a book’s nuance, backstory, character development, reflection, elaboration of emotion, dialogue, and so on.
Evaluation: I thought this first installment of a trilogy showed creativity, a lovely depiction of young romance, and a nice exploration of different kinds of family, love, and friendship. Although this is a dystopia, there is less emphasis on world-building and more on how a girl defined as an abomination by others learns how to feel good about herself. And there’s enough steaminess in this book to keep you warm until the next installments appear.
Note: Film rights have been optioned for this series.
Published by HarperCollins, 2011