I’m a latecomer to this little gem, but I devoured it in 24 hours, so I clearly enjoyed it (although it didn’t make for easy dreams).
I had been tipped off to the central conceit before I started reading, but knew very little else – which is a great way to approach it, so for those you as yet unspoilt, I’ll try to keep this review spoiler-free.
Melanie is a girl genius behind bars. Her life is governed by strict routine, but consists of little more than a slightly haphazard education, a weekly shower and a carefully controlled diet. The novel slowly reveals her circumstances, then explores how she copes when her routine is disrupted and everything she knows comes under threat.
Melanie is irresistible. She’s smart, she’s innocent and she’s got a sense of humour. I can’t imagine not being sucked into her point of view, and by extension taking on her little girl crush on her favourite teacher, Helen Justineau (their relationship is central to the novel, which I particularly enjoyed). Her circumstances are unusual and it doesn’t take long to figure out what’s going on; which makes the second half of the novel in which she comes to terms with the rapidly expanding horizons of her world all the more interesting.
Excellent as it is, I found the novel suffered in places from being too predictable and from discarding some of its ideas too easily – the Mad Max junkers being a case in point; the state of Beacon being another – but you have to admire Carey for being single-mindedly focused on Melanie. She only cares about her immediate surroundings and her beloved Miss J – and we get very limited access to the broader perspectives and cares of the adult characters. The novel unfolds in terms of how events affect Melanie – and how she develops agency and influences those events.
My main beef, though, is the handling of Doctor Caldwell. Caldwell’s entirely valid arguments are hopelessly undermined by her horrid personality, so instead of being challenged by her point of view and allowing the reader to make their own mind up we get a stock Evil / Amoral Scientist (and one of my pet peeves is the ‘science is eeeeevil’ trope). That said, given the Melanie-centric narrative and the nature of Caldwell’s research, it’s tricky to see how she could have been entirely sympathetic – but we do get to see Miss J’s demons, so I don’t think softening up Caroline Caldwell was out of the question.
That said, I will admit to being delighted that the question that had been niggling me from the start –
SPOILER (mouse over to read) where the hell did the children come from 20 years after the Breakdown?!
– was in fact the crux of the novel. And Caroline Caldwell is arguably vindicated in answering it, although without any forgiveness for her actions.
A brilliant book and highly recommended.