I was immediately swept into the world of this creatively different post-apocalytic dystopian reverie for adults.
As in many post-apocalyptic scenarios, the world has been decimated by unsupportable levels of population growth, environmental devastation, decline of education and technology, urban wars and perhaps most central to this story, “the ineradicable fungus of bureaucratic jargon.” And you have to love how political districts are now referred to as Gerrymanders.
In this shady world where freedom is uncertain and aleatory, people kept disappearing, “but everybody pretended not to notice and stayed neutral and colorless like fabric lampshades.”
Ubiquitous large television screens now provide the opiate of the masses, with news programs that gave people “the feeling of being informed”; public trials to shame and destroy those who don’t comply with regulations; fantasy serials to satisfy peoples’ desires for a better life; and even public executions to titillate them while instilling more mind-controlling fear. And always there are ads encouraging people to save up for a vacation at Lighthouse Island, a supposed paradise somewhere in the Northwest.
But that isn’t the only entertainment available to the masses. While the language on the tv was “crushed by fear and boredom,” there was also “Big Radio,” a voice from an abandoned satellite that cycles through all the old classics of literature all year long. It is in this way that Nadia, an orphan abandoned when she was four, acquires her unusual education. Since she was briefly blind, her eyes never adjusted well to television, and she relied on Big Radio to fill her hours with entertainment, and her imagination with dreams. In addition, “Nadia plunged into books because there was no danger of fictional characters disappearing, and even better, they were not subject to arrest.”
Like so many others, Nadia aspires to go to Lighthouse Island, but she is smarter and more resourceful than most. When circumstances dictate that she needs to run and hide for her life, she decides to try to make her way there. She finds an unlikely source of help from a politically powerful paraplegic, James, who falls in love with Nadia, and is determined to help her.
Discussion: There are many elegantly phrased passages in this book, as well as apt allusions to poems and classics reflecting Nadia’s frame of reference – snippets inserted slyly that will titillate more literate readers. When Nadia first sees an airplane, for example, her wonder at its creation evokes William Blake’s “The Tiger.” There are whispers of Eliot and Yeats and opera and plays. Everything comes together without fanfare but in symphonic alignment, as with this nice passage, when Nadia and her fellow prisoner Charity are in a room with their prison administrator and James:
“Nadia glanced quickly from one side to the other. The entire room seemed to be electrified, its photons and electrons and atoms and beige-and-blue-striped curtains in a slubby weave were all charged with desire. With potential and kinetic love. With poetry and antique emotions. With faith, hope, and Charity, who was standing quietly by with a bread knife in her hand thinking of slitting the administrator’s throat.”
I admired the many ways in which the author (a poet as well as a writer) juxtaposes the ugliness of the man-made world to the beauty of nature, such as her description of the sea when it beat and spangled on the rocks “and threw sequins into the air and overhead the gulls sailed and watched.”
And there is this well-crafted and astute definition of love:
“James searched [Nadia’s] face as if wondering how a blind orphan child had become this ardent young woman with her face now smoothed out by wet and damp. To him she was erotic and steadfast and endearing and if she were not this to other people, then he alone held the key to her being. Sometimes love is blind and sometimes it is sighted, perhaps with a third eye.”
In parts the tone of the prose was a bit dream-like and fantastical, and some aspects of Nadia’s journey lacked for realism, but while I didn’t like those aspects of the story as much, they fit.
Evaluation: I was quite impressed with this surprising book, and consistently absorbed in the story. Those who like poetry will find this book especially rewarding, as the author – through her craft, manages to transmogrify bleak destruction and hopelessness into transcendent beauty and salvation.
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2013