Monday, 21 February 2011
WITHER BY LAUREN DESTEFANO
What if you knew exactly when you would die?
Thanks to modern science, every human being has become a ticking genetic time bomb—males only live to age twenty-five, and females only live to age twenty. In this bleak landscape, young girls are kidnapped and forced into polygamous marriages to keep the population from dying out.
When sixteen-year-old Rhine Ellery is taken by the Gatherers to become a bride, she enters a world of wealth and privilege. Despite her husband Linden's genuine love for her, and a tenuous trust among her sister wives, Rhine has one purpose: to escape—to find her twin brother and go home.
But Rhine has more to contend with than losing her freedom. Linden's eccentric father is bent on finding an antidote to the genetic virus that is getting closer to taking his son, even if it means collecting corpses in order to test his experiments. With the help of Gabriel, a servant Rhine is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in the limted time she has left.
If I had to use one word to describe Lauren DeStefano's debut novel it would be: Troubling.
WITHER is not a thrill-packed adventure story filled with explosions. Ninety percent of the story takes place in one location, and involves a mere handful of characters. We only glimpse the outside world in snatches. And yet for all that, this is story which gets under your skin and quietly itches away there, causing you to lie awake at night thinking about it long after it is finished.
This story takes the common writing adage 'start with the action' to heart, as the first page finds us locked in a dark, enclosed space with sixteen year old main character Rhine and dozens of other girls. The dark space is the back of a lorry. Rhine does not know who the other girls are or where they are being taken. The girls do not talk to one another, or cry to comfort the ones that cry or are sick. They merely huddle on the floor of the truck, lost in the darkness and their own private nightmares. And so we learn the first, and perhaps most telling lesson of WITHER: that there is no automatic solidarity in suffering. That misery and fear do not make the soul stronger. In life or death situations the strong tend to their own survival and the weak tend to die.
If this sounds bleak? It is. My God, it is. I admit that I found the first few chapters of the story difficult to get through, despite the lyrical, flowing quality of the prose. The sense of forboding, of suffocating menace under the glossy surface of the world that Rhine is forced into is palpable. I found myself WILLING the bad stuff to happen, just to get it over with so I could relax. But Ms DeStefano is a cunning writer, and she does not allow this. As a result, I know, had I been reading a physical ARC (rather than an eGalley, courtesy of NetGalley) that I would probably have been tempted to skip forward a dozen pages to try and ease the unbearable tension.
What ultimately makes the story readable - and allowed me to enjoy it despite the ever-present undercurrent of bleakness - is the strength of Rhine's voice. She is a wonderful narator, and Ms DeStefana uses her unique, clear-eyed POV to guide us through the intricacies of the WITHER world with skillfully woven flashbacks, dreams and fantasies. Rhine is in no way a 'feisty' heroine. What she is, is a strong young woman with a great deal of determination and a bone-deep ability to hold a grudge.
One of the things I admired greatly about this book is the way it takes us from speechless, gasping horror at the terrible events of the Dystopia we see to a strange state of almost-acceptance - and then back again. Rhine herself battles constantly against complacency, the very human desire to accept even the most screaming madness and normalise one's own situation. Every time that Rhine smiles and laughs in her new world, we do too - only to jerk back, appalled, when we are reminded that everything about Rhine's life is wrong, wrong, wrong. The story of Cecily, a beautifully drawn secondary character, is a telling clue to the story's second big message: That those who are suffering the most from systems of oppression will often be the ones fighting most fiercely to preserve them. They don't WANT to escape.
Speaking of secondary characters - I think WITHER's are perhaps its greatest strength. From the smallest speaking parts like the loud-mouthed but kind-natured cook to capricious, dying Rose, from tragic Jenna to willfully blind Linden, the secondary cast here are minutely developed and lovingly depicted, creating the sense of a real world even though, as mentioned earlier, the world we see is actually very, very small.
Something else that stood out for me was the writer's handling of a device which would seem by definition incredibly depressing - a world in which men die at twenty-five and women at twenty - and instead used the ticking clock of the character's lifespan to create a sense of freedom, of the joy and beauty of life, of the importance of being true to yourself and taking chances, even when everyone around you is intent on keeping you in a cage (very nicely referenced in the image on the cover, by the way) for your own good.
Despite all the things that I liked about it, for me, WITHER ends a little abruptly, leaving many plot threads dangling loose, and many hints unresolved. It is the first of a trilogy, and as such I'd obviously expect to find myself with questions, but because I cannot judge how Ms DeStefano will handle these it's impossible for me to give this book a full five stars. I just don't know how the story is going to play out.
But it's this very sense of unpredictability which will ensure that I am scrabbling to get my hands on the next book in THE CHEMICAL GARDEN Trilogy the very moment it becomes available.
I want and *need* to know how Rhine's short life will end. And I believe that other readers will too.