Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Review: The Knife of Never Letting Go [2008]

I can't pinpoint it exactly, but I'm pretty sure I picked up The Knife of Never Letting Go (on audio) because Jen told me to. I am very suggestible these days, so blog posts that praise things I'm already interested in reading have a tendency to spur me into action. It's a very difficult book to write a quick summary of, and I guess there may be spoilers below, depending on your definition of the term.

Todd Hewitt is the only boy in Prentisstown, which, as far as he knows, is the last outpost of a planetary colony in which all the women and most of the men died from a mysterious disease caused by the world's original residents, the Spackle. The remaining men are afflicted with what's called "Noise," essentially broadcasting their thoughts and feelings for all to see. As Todd approaches manhood under the care of his foster parents Ben and Cillian, he copes as best he can with the rage and despair he sees in the Noise around him. When Todd discovers the unthinkable--a girl--at the outskirts of Prentisstown, his life changes immediately and irrevocably. Ben and Cillian send him off toward another settlement with his talking dog, a map and a long-prepared pack, and a book filled with his mother's words. The town's fearsome preacher, Aaron, launches a maniacal pursuit and nearly kills both Todd and the mysterious girl, Viola, who turns out to be the survivor of a crashed scout ship from another wave of colonizers. Viola and Todd have only each other to rely on as they try to make their way--through wilderness and unexpected settlements, through their vast differences and Todd's ignorance and countless close calls just ahead of Aaron's madness--toward some kind of safe haven.

This is the kind of book where so many bad things happen to the characters that the positive developments seem transparent or coincidental by comparison to the driving, merciless chase. It reminds me of The Hunger Games in the brutal, unapologetic way that good people kill and good people are killed. I say "as far as he knows" about Todd above because almost all of the truths that he takes for granted when the book begins are systematically stripped away as he and Viola flee from Aaron and the rest of the Prentisstown men. Todd  grows enormously as a character during the course of the book, and the growing pains are sometimes quite difficult to experience with him.

Grade: A-

I would recommend this book to fans of dystopian fiction, as well as fans of horror movies (I am looking at you, Amanda!) because of the way that Aaron keeps coming after Todd and Viola like a homicidal maniac, even after sustaining incredible damage. It's also a great study of the relationship between two young people, and how it changes under pressure and over time. I do not recommend it for people who don't like violence, especially against innocents; I was crying in the car on several occasions.

Random Thoughts:

In addition to being horrifically fascinating and an intriguing exercise in worldbuilding, I read the book as a sharp commentary on fundamentalism. The colonist group that included Todd's parents and foster parents were religious settlers, leaving in the face of persecution to find a new home where they could make a different way of life. There are settlements where this translates to a surprisingly female-ascendant system of government, and then there's Prentisstown. Todd's home is a place where learning has gradually been eradicated to the point where he doesn't even know how to read, probably because it makes it easier for Mayor Prentiss to perpetuate his version of history. The prevailing view of women, judging by later events, sees them as objects for raping and killing, and Aaron, the book's scariest character, is the Prentisstown man of God.

The book was written in a grinding first-person present tense that really lends itself both to the audio format and the fast pace of the action. Having picked up the print version, I see that I missed out on a few font tricks having to do with Noise, but it was nothing that wasn't capably translated in the audio, which I highly recommend.

I'm currently taking a break before tackling the second book. I actually have it in the car, ready to go, but the first one was so exhausting to read that I've been listening to other things instead. I'd like to continue the series, because it's highly recommended, but it may take me a while to work up to The Ask and The Answer. I need to take a break from books that I want to use the word "brutal" to describe.

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