This week, in honor of a certain bookstore that I loved and the unparalleled joy of reading on long summer days, I’m offering reviews of some of my recent reads and humbly requesting recommendations for new books to love.
I’m not one to gush unless I feel very strongly about something. Okay, that’s a big ol’ lie. I gush all the time (that was the greatest ice cream I’ve ever eaten!) because I feel strongly about a lot of things. So maybe I should start this review this way: I’m not one to admit that I gush and fawn and hyperbolize (new word I just made up) unless I feel very strongly about something and want to mark that feeling with a such a caveat. So now this: I feel very strongly about this novel.
Anna North’s debut novel America Pacifica is one of the best things I’ve read in a while. Set in an absolutely brilliantly rendered world after a cataclysmic ice age has left only a tiny fraction of humanity alive, struggling on an island to retain the old ways of life, North’s story is at once a very simple whodunit and an exploration into politics, sociology, class, and the powerful desire for stasis that we human animals have. The mystery plot is an absolutely original take on the genre; our protagonist, Darcy, is searching for her mother, the only family and only community she has, who simply failed to return from work one day. Darcy, realizing that she is alone and that she alone can find her mother, sets out to bring her home and, in doing so, discovers hat deeper mysteries are at work below the surface, mysteries that could upset the whole political rhetoric and balance of the island.
But beyond just the mystery, beyond just the political, this novel is about a desperate world seeking that balance after the disruption of everything familiar. This dystopic, post-apocalyptic element is simply stunning. The claustrophobia of the island, the reek of the seaweed, the sweltering tropical heat, and the incongruity between old-world imports in new-world settings are all so well drawn that I often felt physically affected by North’s descriptions. North’s invented industries and “what if?” game playing with the island setting is impressive; I read a lot of speculative fiction, and nothing I’ve read recently compares to how real and believable North’s world is. At times, I felt like I could smell jellyfish being fried in a barrio, feel the mold and mildew of the “seaboard,” taste the damp, fetid sea air.
Not only is it a remarkable well-realized dystopia that features both the Island at the End of the World and the Next Ice Age tropes, but it is one of the best character studies I’ve ever read. And unlike the Hunger Games (which, no joke, I loved while reading), I feel like the description of a young female protagonist just learning that she has power as a woman and as a symbol was both organic, believable, and had feminist power to it, instead of devolving into an excuse to not give a woman real agency. As much as I enjoyed Hunger Games and it’s depiction of an ass-kicking heroine, I was often frustrated at the main character’s lack of insight, foresight, and agency; why doesn’t she wake up, I kept thinking! Moreover, Hunger Games still in many ways centers on a romantic, heterosexual match that, while being well developed and powerful, is nevertheless remarkably myopic. North, on the other hand, allows Darcy to seek not for romantic love but for family, for stability, and though the acknowledgement of possible romantic connections is addressed (chillingly, at times), the purpose of the story, of Darcy’s quest, remains directed towards her mother.
Anna North’s insights into her protagonist’s power — Darcy’s ability to perceive and imagine her way into other people’s lives, which allows her both empathy and manipulative control — is so seamless and elegantly crafted that I never felt surprised at Darcy’s abilities, never felt like she wasn’t headed for something big even when she herself didn’t know it. It’s hard to describe the skill with which North writes without giving away the plot and that’s something I absolutely don’t want to do, because the plot is so brilliant, but I will say that the basic premise — the search for Darcy’s mom — very skillfully gives way to a larger story with really amazing insights about the human condition and the state of humanity “after the end.” I’m absolutely convinced that this book is doing something