I have to say that I’m appalled that some editor out there read this book and decided that it would be a good addition to the Young Adult shelves. You’d think that a book which contains incest, forced abortions, rape (including incestuous and homosexual), and borderline bestiality would not be an obvious candidate for teen reading, even if most of this content is visited upon teen characters. Granted, these things weren’t described quite as graphically as they could have been, but stuff like this doesn’t have to be explicit to be disturbing. From start to finish, the book left a bad taste in my mouth…and it would have even if I hadn’t known that it was shelved in the YA section at the library.
This loosely-derived plot is based on the fairy tale of Snow White and Rose Red. Here, young Liga’s life is absolute hell until one day when she is fifteen, she suddenly finds herself and her two infant daughters living in her own personal “heaven”, a place where there is no pain or suffering and all other human beings are nice automatons. Eventually, though, the real world starts to bleed through into Liga’s world — including characters dressed as bears for a traditional ritual who become actual bears in Liga’s “heaven” — and she and her (now grown) daughters must each make their own choice whether to return to the real world. The theme, I think, is supposed to be that life hurts, that suffering and the potential for more suffering is part of being human. Which is a pretty hard lesson to swallow when the suffering is free of any point or purpose. There’s a touch of revenge and a large helping of resignation here, but no redemption at all. There’s not even any purpose behind Liga’s temporary “heaven” (a rather boring refuge all-told) — neither the narrator nor the characters have any idea why she lucked out in the first place. One or two characters do actually care about doing the right thing, but in this context, it’s hard to see the point.
Combining this depressing thematic material with the horrifying content makes for one disturbing book…especially when some of the nasty sexual stuff is seen as morally ambiguous. Lanagan is actually quite good as a writer (which is unfortunate for readers, since it makes the disturbing content all the more harrowing). She uses several narrative voices — some first person, some third — without clearly separating them, but she develops them well enough that you can distinguish them. She creates a slangy jargon for her setting which works extremely well — you can always tell what the words mean, but they sound authentic and lend an evocative atmosphere to the story. Too bad that so often the authors wordsmithing evokes such disturbing and repellent content.
Content warning: ‘Nuff said.