I wrote this review when I read the book back in the spring, but as I talk about some spoilers below, I wanted to wait until it comes out. Which is tomorrow! I think Karen Healey is one of the best current YA authors, period — up there with Melina Marchetta and John Green. Don’t miss this one.
I identified with Keri immediately because in the first chapter she explains that she likes to be prepared. She has plans for every possible disaster, keeps emergency supplies in her bedroom, that sort of thing. But of course, she does not have a plan for what to do when her beloved older brother kills himself. Unless it turns out to be murder, as her childhood friend Janna suspects. It turns out that Keri’s brother is part of a pattern of “suicides” that includes Janna’s brother, her friend Sione’s brother, and ten years’ worth of other oldest brothers, all from different parts of New Zealand, who have visited their idyllic resort town for the New Year’s festivities. The three only have a short time until New Year’s comes around again to identify this year’s victim and find the killers.
I loved Healey’s last book, Guardian of the Dead, and I loved this. For many of the same reasons: believable, flawed friendships between fully realized characters; sensitive handling of sex (and the lack thereof); a stunning sense of place. The magic felt a bit less organic here than in Guardian and required more suspension of disbelief for some reason; I kept waiting for a twist, that it wasn’t what the kids thought, but nope — it pretty much was, and was an idea we’ve all seen before, and therefore had something of a “Buffy monster-of-the-week” feel, like with established characters all of this could have happened in 50 minutes on TV.
So while this feels less original than Guardian (with the exception of the New Zealand setting, which is unusual enough to get a bunch of automatic originality points for an American audience), it was no less fun to read. I chewed through it in one day, home sick recovering from BEA. Healey is an outstanding writer with a gift for dialogue, characterization, and foreshadowing. She drops hints along the way that only seem sinister in retrospect, but doesn’t make us wait for the characters to catch up to what we’ve already figured out. And she weaves race, class, and sexuality (and, in this case, temporary disability) into the story in such a way that it feels like she’s creating real people rather than checking character traits off a PC list.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of fear in my own life, and how to avoid sacrificing long-term sanity for short-term peace of mind. I said at the beginning that I identified with Keri’s need to plan for every eventuality. At the end she says, “I still planned for possibilities, but it was easier to recognize the planning as part of the anxiety and not being about real things that might actually happen,” and it was eerily like reading words from my own head.
SPOILERS (which might be interesting if you’re not going to read the book, since (surprise!) I go off on a tangent)
One of my favorite things about Healey’s books is how the magic has lasting consequences — good and bad. At the end of Guardian the earthquakes had still happened and people needed to clean up afterwards. And at the end of this, people do start losing their jobs and leaving Summerton. That is the consequence of putting an end to the spell that demanded the boys as sacrifice. (It’s implied that the town is going to be okay anyway, which is maybe a cop-out considering how similar West Coast towns are described as “ghost towns.”) “Dystopia” is the big buzzword right now, but this is a dystopia in the truest sense — it aims for utopia and misses horribly, and we see that from the inside.
It made me think of Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” (If you’ve never read it, the text is behind that link. It’s very short and I think it’s pretty much required modern reading.) To what lengths are we willing to go to keep the places we love safe and prosperous? Is there any amount of sacrifice that’s worth it? We (and here I’m making some assumptions about my readership) are, of course, all citizens of Omelas or Summerton — enjoying our cheap and plentiful fuel and food and material goods at the expense of the impoverished people who create those things for us. There are ways to walk away from Omelas, to go off the grid, but almost no one does it because the pull of the comfort and safety and community is far too strong. (And because — and this is something not allowed for in the parameters of LeGuin’s story — maybe it’s better to stay and try to change things from the inside?)
I think that’s why it took people who had been damaged by the Summerton spell to finally see the rot at the core of the town. The pain of losing their brothers was enough to intrude on the cocoon. Everyone else chose to look away, and the coven members themselves — who, like the people of Omelas (and us), know and are making a fully conscious choice — find ways to justify it.