This book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury Children’s, at no cost. It’s on sale now; RRP $19.99.
The promo material that comes with this says it’s for 12+ years. Me, I wouldn’t give this to a 12 year old that you wouldn’t give Lord of the Flies to – and I’m guessing that’s most of them. It’s been a while since I read Lord of the Flies but there are definite overtones of that scenario in Carthew’s book, especially in the second half. I rather feel a kid would need to be a bit robust to read and enjoy this, because it’s certainly not all rainbows and cupcakes. I know dystopia is (was) all the rage but this feels a bit closer to home than that…
The set up sees Trey, as a small child, hiding in a cupboard while his parents are murdered. What a cheery opening, right? And then the story skips forward eight years and Trey is getting himself into a farm camp for juvenile criminals, in theory intended to train the adolescents in useful skills but in reality more like forced labour. Trey has willingly gone there in order to try and find the man responsible for his parents’ deaths. Which is a bit messed up I think.
There are some really interesting ideas here, but for me some of the better ones are the ideas that get mentioned and then lost. It becomes clear int he second half that society outside of the camp isn’t exactly the society of Britain (I think) in 2016… but exactly what’s going on and how it got there is never explored. It’s just mentioned in passing, almost for no reason, and then ploop… disappears. The entire set up of the farm isn’t explored or explained in that much detail, so it just sort of… exists… as a place for things to happen.
The main focus of the story is friendship and revenge. Friendship in this kind of environment is always going to be a bit fraught, what with sadistic overseers and bullies and a system aimed at breaking kids down. The friendship between Trey and a boy in his bunk room, Lamby, is believable enough but I didn’t always buy the friendship between Trey and Kay, a girl with whom he ends up doing farm work. It might have been a bit more believable if there had been other female characters with whom we got to see Kay interacting, or even Trey interacting with them.
The revenge aspect drives the initial part of the plot and again I didn’t entirely buy the eight year old boy turning into an adolescent so driven by revenge that it’s as if there’s a demon under his skin. This idea of a demon gets a few mentions – including on the back cover – but isn’t really explained; Trey occasionally talks to it but it’s not clear what we’re meant to think is going on. Maybe that’s left deliberately ambiguous but it didn’t work for me in this context. There is some resolution to this revenge plot but, again, it didn’t entirely work for me.
This all makes it sound like I hated the book, but I didn’t. I didn’t love it, but neither did I loathe it. Cart hew writes beautifully on a sentence level; the Financial Times apparently described her as using “vivid, imagistic language” and certainly a lot of the language is vivid. Some of the lacunae are obviously deliberate and evocative, which I liked, it just didn’t always sit well with the plot.