Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Half Lives - M's review

Half Lives by Sara Grant
Reviewed by M

I think my teen self would have devoured Half Lives.

Half Lives is an interweaved apocalyptic story moving between the present and the future. A terrorist virus threatens the world and teenaged Icie’s only hope of survival is an old nuclear-waste bunker in a desert mountain just outside Las Vegas. Skip many years forward and a new community, Forreal, find that their defensive, post-apocalyptic life is under threat.

Half Lives by Sara Grant
Half Lives by Sara Grant
The chapters move from Icie’s first person narrative which is written in the present to third person accounts from Forreal, set in the future. Icie’s contemporary teen account reads at first like a ‘get down with the teens’ voice. Soz. But it is the third-person accounts about Forreal that take this even further.

The Forreal community lives on a mountain and worships The Great I AM.  They have a sacred space, rules and sacred texts. They are passive and believe in peace. They have a number of Just Sayings which remind me of the Gods Gardeners’ Hymns in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood.

At first, the social media references were slightly irritating for me. It sounds like it’s been crafted for a timebound teen audience who will delight in seeing themselves on the pages. But I stuck with it and I’m glad I did. I think it worked (although it would be interesting to re-read in a few years' time).

The lingo is really an essential ‘point’ of the book: how words, culture, symbols and other forms of communication travel across time and place. Have you ever played Chinese Whispers or Broken Telephone? It’s a bit like that. For me, this was the aspect of the novel that stood out most - and the bit that I enjoyed. While being a very serious novel, it also becomes an interesting and fun parody of contemporary teen behaviour and their reliance on social media (adults too, of course!).  At some points, the novel might well be asking whether there is any real depth to contemporary life? This is a question that the plot may raise for individual readers and one that the narrative leaves them free to work out for themselves. There is no right or wrong in this novel.

When I think of Sara Grant, I immediately think of human rights. She’s shared platforms with Amnesty International and her first novel, Dark Parties (which I have not read), has been endorsed by them.  She also helped to set up the Edge authors blog and so I expected that she would most likely be tackling big or controversial issues and that Half Lives would be gritty. Big issues yes. Gritty, in its issues and the plot – yes, but not in the way it is written.

The novel has many other themes which are prominent throughout the plot:
  • Nuclear power and waste are central to the plot although it didn’t have as much impact on my thoughts as I thought it would/should.
  • Faith, particularly a religious faith: where it comes from, what it does and why we hold on to it.
  • How individuals respond to disasters: not natural disasters but human-made disasters. With whom do we bond in these times and against whom do we separate or even attack? How much do we know or understand before we make a decision? Should we act or not? It’s about human agency.
  • Who and what are terrorists? Is it anyone who is 'not us'? Anyone who is ‘out there’?
 Characterwise, I didn’t feel any great connections to any of them. I should have because, of course, not everyone in an apocalyptic novel survives...!  Ironically, I sometimes found myself asking: “is this for real?” However, on the whole, the plot is highly believable (although  the possible love triangle storyline confused me and the situation Forreal finds itself in felt a bit too fabricated).

While Half Lives addresses some controversial topics, I finished the book with a warm smile on my face. Fans of Marcus Sedgwick’s Midwinterblood may enjoy this as the ways symbols and stories carry over time are central to both novels. Fans of Saci Lloyd might also enjoy Half Lives as Sara Grant adopts a stylised teen voice to take on very big topical and interesting issues about the world in which we currently live. I would happily recommend this to any teen reader. It is an issues book but it is also an easy and page-turning read combined with an exciting and thought-provoking plot.

Publication details: Indigo, May 2013, London, trade paperback
This copy: received for review from the publisher


Spoilerish reminders and thoughts:
  • The origins of the Great I AM were wonderfully more substantial than my cynically flippant view of teenage selfhood had imagined!
  • Have fun spotting the links between the present and the future. Especially name spotting: the names of the Forreal people are all taken from To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper, Finch, Atti, Cal, Dill, (May), and Waiting for Godot (Samuel Beckett).
  • As characters, Greta and Atti seemed little more than plot devices – other readers, especially teens, may view this differently.


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