Saturday, November 16, 2013

Today, I am grateful for female characters in "Wither"

What if you knew you exactly when you would die?

In our brave new future, DNA engineering has resulted in a terrible genetic flaw. Women die at the age of 20, men at 25. Young girls are being abducted and forced to breed in a desperate attempt to keep humanity ahead of the disease that threatens to eradicate it.

16-year-old Rhine Ellery is kidnapped and sold as a bride to Linden, a rich young man with a dying wife. Even though he is kind to her, Rhine is desperate to escape her gilded cage – and Linden’s cruel father. With the help of Gabriel, a servant she is growing dangerously attracted to, Rhine attempts to break free, in what little time she has left.

I admit, I was weary of this one.

I’d been there, read the reviews, scoffed, passed, was tempted, read some more reviews, passed it off again. I pride myself on being able to peg down a novel from the synopsis and this one… I wasn’t feeling generous.

But then something strange happened – some people whose reviews I follow liked it. And by liked, I mean wrote rave reviews, praising this thing off the wall and writing all sorts of intelligent commentary. Added to that is the fact that I’ve followed the author on various social media and she seems like an all-around cool person. So I made a note to give this one a chance if it came my way.

It did.

And I was very, very polarised.

To be honest, I didn’t think I’d like, or even finish this book. The first half was nothing short of one long description, encompassing everything I hated in dystopian YA – flowery language, endless descriptions, and a too-good-to-be-true-heroine that whines and sneers privately at her captors, while simultaneously doing jack shit to push back, or even attempt to emphasise with others in a similar situation. Given that my patience with these books has dwindled even more over the past year, I wasn’t sure I would finish this.

But I did.

I remembered Foz Meadows’ post on the Ferris Wheel effect in dystopias as the point where I actually started seriously considering reading “Wither”, and how eloquently she made a case for the novel in her review. And there was something in the book that kept me going – not Rhine, not Gabriel, certainly not the science… but Cecily.

Cecily is a risqué character. However you look at it, having a 13-year old girl, who is not only married (!) and has sex (!!) but also gets pregnant (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) is a pretty ballsy move. More to the point, it wasn’t looking like Cecily was just there so that Rhine could look better (and thus join the club of bad bitches we all wished were the protagonist.) In fact, it looked like this was Cecily’s story just as much as it was Rhine’s. And Jenna’s. And even Rose’s.

In fact, the point of “Wither”, the only point it’s interested in making, is the women’s stories. Once I realised that, my enjoyment of this book increased tenfold.

Here’s how I see it: I approached “Wither” with prejudice set in mind (perfectly human thing to do,) and if I judged it as a dystopian, action-thriller-science wannabe bombast, it probably would have failed. There isn’t much in the way of plot here, or intrigue, and if you went into it expecting something like “Legend,” then you’d be disappointed.

But what the novel does have is a sense of slow awakening and exploration, a growing awareness and curiosity. Rhine is whiny and annoying, but when you look at her options, you suddenly realise she doesn’t have many of them. There is not much room in this world for overt resistance, but Rhine and her sister-wives do push back with whatever tools they’ve been given, and they do make an interesting impact.

Also, did I mention yet that this is about all the women’s stories, and not just Rhine’s? And those women have lots of different emotional modes and interact with each other in ways that actually make sense? Can I get a big THANK YOU to the agents and publishers who let that happen, and also CAN WE PLEASE HAVE MORE?

Yes, I realise I’m ridiculously giddy over this book, but I can’t help it – I’ve been on a reading draught that’s been doing my head in and I long for stuff that surprises me.

Granted, not everyone will agree with my assessment. Jenna, Rhine and Cecily (and Rose) have more than one emotion, and sometimes they switch between at a pace which can leave the reader confused. Depending on your mileage, their interactions might ring true or false, (as is the case with any book, really,) but to me, they hit very, very close to home.

Imagine growing up knowing exactly when you would die, and die a long, excruciating death. Imagine being told that there is nothing you can do, so you might as well resign yourself to your fate. Imagine your frustration at your own limitations, and the ones that are imposed on you. Everyone would react differently, but the problem with dystopias (and how many times have I used that phrase already?) is that we don’t contextualise the characters enough. We read them as modern people, living in a modern world, when in reality, they’re playing a completely different game from us. And what I think is the trick is that the author needs to make sure that the reader is aware of this world, at every moment, and aware of how that affects the characters.

“Wither” does that… to an extent. I did at certain points lose the feel of the universe, which resulted in much frustration until I fell back into it again. And yet it’s considerably better than many efforts I’ve seen so far.

Note: Synopsis and image via BookLikes.

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