Sunday August 12, 2012
Age versus youth
Review by SHARMILLA GANESAN
Author: Lissa Price
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 352 pages
A deeply disturbing yet intriguing young adult novel reflects on our obsession with youth.
THE plethora of young adult books on the shelves today may lead you to believe that most of these titles are mass-produced, substance-free fluff. While those are certainly plentiful, there are also many fascinating books that use the realm between childhood and adulthood to explore surprisingly mature issues.
Starters by debut author Lissa Price is one of the latter. While the protagonist, Callie Woodland, is a 16-year-old girl, her story traverses themes that are not just relevant to adults, but downright dark and disturbing as well.
Set in a near future, the book describes an American society that is split into two distinct classes: those below the age of 20 (known as Starters), and those above 60 (Enders), with everyone else wiped out as a result of a genocidal war. With wealthy, self-obsessed Enders controlling the country’s economy and politics, Starters with no legal guardians have became the new homeless, scrounging for food and shelter while trying to avoid being rounded up and institutionalised.
Despite having power and comfort, however, the richest of the Enders crave the one thing they can’t have: youth. And so a facility called the Body Bank provides the ultimate experience – through a high-tech procedure, teens are paid to rent out their bodies to geriatrics who want to experience what it is like to be young again.
Callie, who lives on the streets with her seven-year-old brother Tyler and friend Michael, volunteers for the procedure because they are desperate for money. Something goes wrong, however, and she finds herself wrestling for control of her body with her renter, who has her own secret plans involving Callie’s body.
While novels set in a dystopian future are all the rage these days, Price’s envisioning of a time when youth is both abused and idolised is outstanding in its uniqueness. Similarly to The Hunger Games trilogy (and for that matter, many real-life disasters), it is the young and needy who are victimised, as the very people who are supposed to care for them jealously protect their own existence.
Obviously, the plotline is a reflection of society’s current obsession with youth, and the irony of youth being wasted to allow the Enders to re-experience young adulthood is a constant thread. The story, however, is also an apt metaphor for the lack of control many teenagers feel over their bodies’ changes and developments, and the struggle between Callie and her renter serves to highlight the constant struggle for control that young people feel.
Yet Starters also owes much of its roots to science fiction; Price’s descriptions of this future society are fascinating, as are the many subtle ways in which she brings Callie’s world to life. I also like the way she weaves in the technological aspects of the story without dwelling too much on them.
Also enjoyable is the way Price portrays the Enders who are renting the young bodies – while they may relish their newfound energy, ability and looks, they are elderly people inside, and can’t help but behave as such. On the other end of the spectrum, the Starters are realistically depicted as a pitiable combination of childlike traits and brute survival instincts.
Like many leads in YA books, Callie is a strong yet vulnerable teenager (sometimes reminiscent of Katniss from The Hunger Games, I must say). Yet, even though she isn’t extremely original, Price makes her very likeable, and you root for her throughout. I also appreciate the fact that the love triangle – between Callie, Michael and a wealthy Starter boy named Blake – was kept understated enough to be enjoyable without getting cloying. And unlike many YA novels, the romance angle actually has a legitimate part to play in the storyline.
The supporting characters are very well-fleshed out too: Blake is appropriately dreamy, while the employees at the Body Bank really give you the creeps.
My favourites, though, are Madison, a ditzy old woman in the body of a ditzy teen, and Sara, an institutionalised young girl who befriends Callie.
The only flaw in the book is that things tend to feel rushed towards the end. With the first three-quarters of the novel unfolding deliciously titbit by titbit, the climax seems like it is flung at us all of a sudden.
That said, the build-up to the shocking twist at the end is very nicely done, and leaves you on tenterhooks for the sequel, Enders, scheduled to come out next year. With such a promising start, I for one can’t wait to see how this story ends.