The First Book of Calamity Leek (2013) by Paula Lichtarowicz
In the first chapter of this novel, the reader is introduced to Calamity Leek, a girl living a distinctly peculiar life - locked away in a self-contained world 'behind the Wall', along with her thirteen (similarly unusually-named) 'sisters'. It's evident from the start that there is something very odd about Calamity's existence and what she believes about both the place she lives in, and the world outside it. A few pages later, in the third chapter, we find Calamity full of anger and confusion, but in a more recognisable setting - what seems to be an ordinary hospital room. She has started writing her own book, to take the place of a tome she relied upon in her previous life. As Calamity writes her story, the strange and shocking truth of that life unfolds.
The book is narrated entirely by Calamity, so we see everything through the filter of her limited, manipulated worldview. Of the 'sisters', Calamity is the one who believes most fervently in the stories she has been told, and it is her refusal to accept there may be any problems with those stories that forms the basis for much of the plot. At the same time, Calamity is so naive that it is easy for the reader to see past her beliefs and understand something of the real story. Beyond that, it's quite difficult to describe what happens and how events unfold without spoiling everything. (With that in mind, I will note here that you might want to stop reading my review now (or skip to the final paragraph!) if you have plans to read this book - some issues I have mentioned, though they are discussed in general terms, might be considered spoilers. I don't want to ruin the book for anyone - particularly as I think I enjoyed it more because I didn't any preconceived idea of what was going on and had to make up my own mind.) Obviously, it's evident from the start that Calamity and the other girls have either escaped or been liberated from their 'prison' (or is it? Our heroine certainly seems to feel otherwise) but there's no moment of revelation and no immediate point of understanding for the reader. Instead, the real story trickles through slowly via Calamity's memories of events and conversations.
There's a lot to enjoy and admire about this original debut, which had me glued to the page from the beginning. Although the book is written from the point of view of a child (Calamity's exact age is never specified, but her emotions and learning are so stunted that it feels appropriate to term her as such) and full of phrasing that verges on the annoying, the narrative never put me off - probably because the irritating bits are tempered by humour. There's a very good balance of light and dark throughout and the speed at which the revelations filter through is perfect. Unfortunately, there are significant issues with the plot and, to some extent, the characterisation. Namely, I couldn't truly believe that the place Calamity and the other girls lived could ever have come to exist in the real world, or that the people responsible could actually have held the operation together. The more I thought about it the more it seemed obvious that this would never have been possible. I felt similarly about how Calamity was treated in the aftermath of her 'escape': it didn't seem that she had been given any sort of psychological assessment or therapy while in hospital, in fact the few nurses and doctors mentioned appeared to react to her beliefs with nothing more than a slightly bemused attitude! Given the length of her period in captivity, as well as the immediately evident strangeness of her beliefs and those of her 'sisters', this was just beyond unrealistic.
By the end, I found myself a bit conflicted about this book. I found it compelling, I loved the weirdness of it, and I've found myself thinking about it a lot since I finished it, so clear is the picture in my head of the world the girls inhabited. But I also feel that if you start examining the story in any detail whatsoever, it just falls apart: not only in the sense that it isn't believable, but because it's really unclear what the author was trying to achieve with it, what it's actually supposed to mean. I really couldn't figure out whether it was supposed to be interpreted from an ultra-feminist point of view (the literal demonisation of all men and the construction of an all-female, self-sufficient society - if only on a small scale) or whether it's actually incredibly anti- feminist (because the perpetrators of these views are presented as crazy, dangerous, murderous, and because ultimately their experiment fails completely). I also felt the story was trying to make a point about religion and/or terrorism (the religious tones of the stories they were told, and the whole idea of being sent off to 'War', particularly underlined this) but I'm really not sure exactly what this was, and I get the feeling the author was never quite sure either. I would also have liked to know a lot more about how all of this had come to be - I know the point was that you only saw and heard what Calamity did, but... This was a good example of an author using a child narrator to avoid having to study their adult characters' behaviour in detail, and of unspecified 'madness' being cited as the reason for all kinds of actions.
This book has far too many flaws for me to give it a higher rating, but I would still recommend it. I think what really infuriated me was that the good bits were really, really good - I couldn't help but want to know about everything in the fullest detail, and when the climax and conclusion of the story failed to provide that, I was left frustrated. If you accept the flaws and stick with it, though, there's a great, dark, tantalising (and quite brutally funny) ending which makes up for some of that.
Rating: 7/10 | My full review on Goodreads (with spoilers!) | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback