Times of tumult, passion and fragile fortunes -- it's no wonder so many novels describe post-apocalyptic landscapes through awakening teenage eyes.
Burn it down, build it back up, find a way to make it through. There's an aching symmetry in choosing a narrator who is building their own internal world anew. Sandra Newman is certainly not the first author to take this tack. But her third novel, The Country of Ice Cream Star, may be one of the most exhilarating, harrowing examples of this lively literary act.
The heroine of the tale is titular: a proud and big-hearted girl named Ice Cream Star. Although she is only 15 years old, she is among the seniormost in her scraggly band of Sengles, one of the surviving tribes of children that populate a tattered world. When we meet her, we soon learn that a pandemic swept through the United States some years before; the wealthy white folks evacuated to Europe, leaving the poor behind to struggle and die.
Worst of all, the survivors are still struck by a disease they call "posies," which cuts them down somewhere between birth and their 21st birthdays. This is the sad setting in which Ice Cream Star has grown: a world where the teen years are not carefree respite from the weight of mortality, but bear that weight with crushing surety. A world where death has not lost its sting, even by familiarity, even as teens seek joy in kin, and warlike scuffles and sexuality.
When we meet Ice Cream Star in the book's opening sentences, we learn that her "ghost brother" had already died young of posies, when she was only six years old. "Still my heart is rain for him," she says, a sign of the language that will unfold for readers.
Her heart is rain. This is the way Ice Cream speaks, and the language leaps off the page. The dialect the scraggly Sengles and their contemporaries speak is part Creole French, part African-American Vernacular English, part what would happen to a language that has been shaped only by toddlers and semi-literate teenagers for many generations. There is a vivacious poetry in it, and Newman lifts it up ebullient and clean.
"Ain't words for what this be," Ice Cream muses, after a tryst with a forbidden lover. "Be something make all honour small. No life nor honesty remain, and every strangeness, every stopping pain, become bellesse. We speaking words like love, like you, that ain't mean nothing. Words waste in air. Nor ain't knowledge of this losten hour, is gold you cannot see. Cannot find out what it been. Yet this blind thing be more real than life."
Of all the ways to describe the urgency of youthful passion, there are few that ring more true than that.
With this language as a constant companion, Newman sets Ice Cream off on a frenetic adventure: to try and save her dying brother, to try and save her people entire. It is breathless, emotionally relentless, racked by violence but buoyed by Ice Cream's spirited defiance. Even just a few chapters in, the reader is left marvelling that there are still so many pages left, when the story has already run so far from where it began.
This is not to say it's perfect. Advance reviews compare Newman's dystopia to Margaret Atwood, but I'm not sure the comparison holds: where Atwood has a knack for the prophetic, Newman's world-building feels more fantastic. When a sprawling neo-Vatican city-state makes an appearance, it hacks at the suspension of disbelief. It's a jarring drop, and there's no time for Newman to re-seduce the reader -- the story must keep clipping to a conclusion.
There is also the issue of race, and history. Newman introduces us to a world where the privilege of skin and wealth issued one last parting shot as it left America. But this soon fades into the background -- a missed opportunity, given that dystopian fiction is so well-positioned to force us to confront our modern evils. Then again, perhaps that is just as well -- perhaps it's not Newman's story to tell.
Either way, after the dust settles and the final page is savoured -- it leaves the door wide open for a sequel -- we are left with a sigh, and a thrill. We are left bidding goodbye to a spirited heroine we've come to know and love so well, and the possibilities for her future play out long in the mind.
Melissa Martin is a sports reporter and weekend columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.