In light of the long delayed, underwhelming movie starring Tom Holland and Daisy Ridley which finally came out last year, I figured I should revisit the brilliant first book of the trilogy that gave rise to it.
This book is absurdly brilliant. Absurd because it really shouldn’t be. Slotted into the not very highly rated (at least from a literary standpoint) young adult fiction genre, I was expecting a middling adventure story which definitely wouldn’t be good enough to make me pick up the next two books in the trilogy with any genuine eagerness. But wow. This is story writing of the highest order, and deserves all the praise that comes its way and should not be slotted in any limited genre.
Our protagonist, Todd Hewitt is the last remaining boy in the settlement called Prentisstown. Very soon he will turn 13, the designated age at which boys become men in this town. This is no ordinary town though. Human settlers on a new planet created this place after a war with the natives, called Spackles, and after a unique germ wiped out all the women and affected only the men. This germ, called the Noise germ, causes all men’s thoughts to be constantly broadcast out loud to everyone else. Basically the town is a cacophony of repressed thoughts which make it tough to hide anything. Or at least this is what Todd believes. For, one day in the swamp along with his pet dog Manchee (who talks – another effect of the Noise germ) he comes across a break in the noise, an oasis of silence. This is from a young, scared girl, Viola who seems to have crash-landed from space. Very soon though, this discovery is about to upend life as he knows it for young Todd. His guardians decide that it’s time for him to leave Prentisstown and barely have enough time to send him away with hardly an explanation except for a map with instructions and a diary before the ubiquitous villain of the piece, Mayor Prentiss, shows up at their door with his minions. For Todd is about to realize that whatever he has known about his world just may not be all that true. Along with Viola and Manchee he sets off on a journey across the wild and relatively unexplored planet, searching for haven from the chasing Mayor and his townspeople, and one very creepy preacher. Along the way, they come across other settlements and experience catharsis of all kinds.
It sounds like any of the numerous other young adult fiction themes of the ‘Chosen One’ and their journey to fulfillment, but this is anything but a run of the mill adventure. There is a brutal reality to Todd’s emancipating journey and his equation with Viola. As he battles feelings of rage, insecurity, bafflement and utter desolation, we have a rare insight to a young character that is so real that we can empathize and sympathize. His salvation does not come very easily. There are moments of huge doubt and self-loathing which characterize his journey and a certain moment of deep grief that grips our hearts with claws of desperation. For the writing is of such quality that we feel for these people. And the dog.Manchee has to be one of the best fictional animal characters I’ve come across. As the world Todd has known till now comes crashing around him bit by bit, we can see parallels of our world in notions of displacement, war mongering and human greed leading to eventual destruction. And hope. There is always hope. The story keeps it dangling like a juicy little morsel, just enough, in front of Todd and Viola and us. Does it get fulfilled?
The ending has to be one of the genuinely great cliff hangers I’ve read. It provided a logical end to the first part of the series, but at the same time got me totally worked up for not having the remainder of the trilogy on hand for immediate perusal. That in itself is apointer to the majestic writing.
Read, read, read. Everyone.