Let’s talk about voice (bay-bee), because this book features one of the strongest I’ve come across.
(And before you hit the jump, please remember that we do spoilers here. All the time. So if you are reading on and you haven’t read the book yet, I don’t think I’ll ruin it but I will spoil some parts. Caveat emptor.)
Well, actually, let’s ease into voice. I want to end on the strong note in hope that others will pick this one up, since I think it’s pretty far under the radar.
There’s a part of me that wonders if this is really an upper middle grade title I should be pushing on all my Newbery-focused friends, rather than the Printzers. It’s so simple in some ways, and the language is so manageable, that it sometimes feel young. But the ideas are huge — this is, in so many ways, a quintessentially YA story. It’s probably more a defies-easy-categorization book than anything as obvious as a “children’s book” or “YA book”.
The YA-ness is the core internal journey. The four girls, epitomized by narrator Veronika, are moving from childhood to adulthood, although their version looks different from May’s, the titular different girl. In the course of the story, Veronika, Caroline, Eleanor, and Isobel emerge as individuals, having been parts of a whole before — maybe not entirely, but largely. They are the same, as they have to be. But as they acquire more knowledge, as the world comes to them, as they experience more and more individual moments, and they form separate selves. They grow, mentally if not physically, from children, protected by Robbert* and Irene, to a kind of adulthood, having to think for themselves and decide for themselves.
(*I found that second B in Robbert weirdly distracting, which had me thinking about names and spellings, something most often played with in genre books. Anyone else find strange spellings for seemingly normal names problematic? I’m fine with made up names, but alternately spelled names leave me wondering way too much about the process and decision that led there, and pull me out of the story. In this case, I could get past it, but I never quite stopped remembering that I was reading a book someone had written whenever I read Robbert’s name. Subjective and baggage, so I’ll stop digressing now.)
Dahlquist’s world-building here is worth stopping to admire. It’s economical, due in part to the very limited knowledge of the first person narrator, and so carefully parceled out through that limited perspective. It puts a lot of onus on the reader: we can establish a rough timeframe (near future) and determine that the world seems to have gone to Hell in a handbasket — but we don’t get big picture, because the narrative is so small-lensed. That the reader still has a sense of place makes this a notable feat, although it may well leave some readers puzzled and dissatisfied.
(My mother, for instance, could not connect all the dots because there were too many things left unstated, and she’s a way more experienced reader than the intended audience, but she’s also less conversant with the tropes of dystopia than they are, and I think anyone who reads a lot of the current crop of dystopic books would have the imagination to fill in the holes.)
Now let’s talk about voice. Because I think the world building is admirable but I recognize that what I see as economy another might see as lazy or half-baked, so we run into who we are as readers rather than the book itself, and the YA journey, while relevant in some ways, is not critical to literary excellence (although it’s come up before that some committees have opted to count that as an element of literary merit; I think the journey done well can be a kind of thematic excellence but the presence or lack thereof is less relevant to my process and criteria).
Veronika’s voice is fantastic. Her precision, the way she turns over each idea searching for the logical progression that led her there, the way she slowly finds her own ways of expressing abstract ideas when she is only just beginning to grasp them: this is an unusual and tightly written voice. It’s been months since I read this the first time, and her voice lingers with me. I believed in her, in the idea of AI girls, because the voice felt so true. In her careful progression through thoughts, laid out for the reader just as she must lay it out — no intuitive leaps here — so many intangibles come through. Most of all, I was struck by the way a sense of wonder threads through, even though as a construct wonder should be far from possible for Veronika.
Ok, enough gushing. Textual evidence: rereading passages, I was really struck by the use of simile and metaphor. For a long time — the first 60 pages or so — there are no metaphors. Nothing represents another idea, because that kind of higher order thinking is hard to get at logically. There are plenty of similes, because in a logic-based system comparison is a useful benchmark for understanding. And then a metaphor develops: the cage, the parrot; the parrot is the thing so obvious you can’t miss it, and the cage is the surrounding, maybe less obvious, idea or thing. This imagery is something the girls can grasp. Veronika gets it first, and then she employs the cage as a symbolic representation of other things she is trying to understand. I’m kind of in awe, because the grasp on language is so perfect. Here is a first person narrative in which the language that is telling the story is showing the character arc. Hello prize-worthy writing.
Also striking: the careful balance of the childlike and the brilliant. These girls can do a lot of things, and they have powers of recall and a breadth of knowledge that is not insignificant. But because emotion is not innate, and too nebulous and indefinable to be learned like a fact, they have a literalism and pragmatism that is a lot like that of a toddler or pre-schooler. They wouldn’t understand sarcasm. They don’t make jokes (not ever. There is an occasional drip of almost-humor through Veronika’s narration, but it’s only ever there because of the juxtapositions the reader can see — the way, for instance, that when Veronika first studies May’s pictures, she is equally interested in the man and the fish he has caught; she doesn’t understand that the fish’s fin and scale coloring is utterly irrelevant. For the reader, it is a little funny, but for Veronika it’s just how she sees the world.) This balance is there in the patience Irene exhibits and the way one of the girls always says “No pinching!” when they take her hand — all these moments that are so childlike, but then you have the moments of cerebral awakening, the visible, naked process of learning that Veronika can understand at an incredibly high level.
Speaking of cerebral, this may be too thinky for some readers — there’s some nice tension, but Veronika’s voice, in order to stay true, can’t ever get too ruffled. She reports, rather than emotes, because it’s how she is made. This makes even the tensest moments distanced. I can’t call that a flaw, though, because it’s the outcome of the always on pitch voice.
And anyway, the Printz isn’t about popularity or appeal. As far as writing goes, I think there’s a lot here to propel this one forward. What say you?