The cover of this novel is striking and colorful, signalling a South Asian tale. Readers may be surprised to discover that it's both dystopian -- and, in part, a verse novel. The detail is absorbing and the political landscape surprising, and the conclusion is just enigmatic enough to be hopeful -- scary -- and perfect. I found this to be a beautiful book.
Summary: It's 2054, and portable ultrasounds, a low-cost and useful medical innovation from our time, have had an unexpected and negative effect on the sprawling population of India that's already beginning in our time. Parents, carefully looking at the cloudy images for a child who will fill their coffers, protect them in their old age and bring honor to their families have chosen boys, boys, boys, boys, boys -- for too long. The obvious and natural effect of illegally abandoning girls in parks and aborting them with risky home procedures is a decades later 5:1 ration of boys to girls. Suddenly girls are precious and wanted, no -- demanded, and an endangered commodity. Sold to the highest bidder, competed for, abducted -- the world is dangerous for women in all ways. From an honest desire to turn their nation around, the women of Koyanagar take power into their own hands politically. They then wall their State and community, and create Tests to give five boys from anywhere in their region and throughout the city a solid chance to marry one of the few girls in the community -- and to allow girls choices again -- so long as their choice is to marry and bear daughters and support the system.
It quickly becomes obvious that not all is acceptable to the young people of the city. Boys have futures as limited as girls once were -- marry, protect Koyanagar's wall as a guard or be a manservant, fetching and carrying in a house - or be ground under the heels of society, if you're not worthy of supporting it. Those, according to Five, are false choices, one and all. In Sudasa's life, choices have been twisted out of all bearing. Women make all the decisions in her society, and the older the woman, the more influence. Sudasa's dragon-lady Nani is old and steeped in guile, and has cowed Sudasa's mother -- and her father -- and even her eldest sister -- for all of her life. Sudasa discovers to her horror that she is definitely a commodity, only this time, unlike the Koyangar girls in history, she is being offered up on the altar of her Nani's ambition.
Still, life and death choices have a way of presenting themselves, but does everyone have the courage to ...live?
Peaks: In this carefully paced narrative, told in alternating blank verse from Sudasa and prose from a boy she calls "Five," a picture of a future India is sketched, then filled in with precise detail. It's exciting that it's actually India -- how often does it get to star in a dystopian novel? Gender disparities, identity, gender politics, choice and freedom are great, meaty topics that a reader can sink their teeth into, even in blank verse. Five is a thoughtful, worthy -- angry character, rightly protesting a completely ridiculous system which has cast him as a competitor -- despite that not being his choice. His inability to quiet his conscience makes him a very realistic, believable character. Sudasa is obedient and compliant on the surface, but soaked in grief and a terrified resignation that this is all there is to life. Despite the calmly presented verse, her mind beats against the bars of her prison like a panicked bird. The phrase "quiet desperation" really fits.
Another strong positive for me, along with the political is that there is no romance in this novel. None. No 11th hour insta-love between strangers. No sneakily planted seeds of passion. Nothing but terrifying uncertainty about an endlessly hideous or uncertain future -- as it should be, in a society which forces arranged marriages.
The author is not Indian, but her acknowledgements list friends and associates who helped her with cultural accuracy. Huzzah.
Valleys: Readers who don't appreciate quiet, thoughtful books may need to select something else, but for many of us, the premise of the dystopian plot is clear and the promise of the story is fulfilled in a fresh and original way.
Conclusion: A strong debut from Holly Bodger with a relevant, original dystopian premise digging into issues of gender and politics and choices in an unusual way.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Knopf Books via NetGalley. After May 15th, 2015, can find 5 to 1 by Holly Bodger at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!