4/5 – Spoilers throughout
Todd Hewitt lives in a strange village on a distant colony world…a village where there are no women, and all the men (and all the animals) can hear thoughts…that is, every thought. This Noise – as Todd calls it – is constant, a mash of every waking and sleeping thought; enough to drive men away from each other into isolation or lose their sanity. It’s covered in the book with changes in font and size, a really nice idea – (if you look at the first example, you can see Aaron thinking Todd Hewitt? by the way)
Todd has been told that the village where he lives is the only one left on the planet; and since there are no women, one day that will die out as well…
When Todd stumbles across something in the local swamp – a silence, a hole in the noise of the world, he has to investigate. And everything he’s been told is a lie…
It took me three or four chapters to settle into this, but once I did, it rocketed away and I couldn’t finish it fast enough. Other reviewers have complained about the constant danger-escape-danger-escape format, and the bad language, but I didn’t notice any of it. I was swept into Todd’s world, his stream-of-consciousness narrative, and I was eager to finish it.
As for the bad language, did they read the same book? Todd uses ‘effing’ – and then says, ‘…except I didn’t say effing.’ His language is never worse than that. Puzzled over that.
Todd has a great narrative voice, a real treat. He uses words like direcshuns and creechers, and when Viola shows him his crashed spaceship, it takes him a minute to work it out. I like that; no telling here, just all show.
There were plot twists I saw coming thirty pages back from where they appeared – Todd is told there are no women on the planet, so it was inevitable that the silence, when he finds it, is going to be a girl; he’s told that the village where he lives is the only one left on the planet – so it’s inevitable that the rest of the world exists and is populated. I also worked out about half-way through that Prentisstown was a ‘penal colony’ (I didn’t know why though, that was a startle.)
The world Todd travels through is rich and verdant, vividly described and created. When Todd comes across creatures he doesn’t know the names of, all he can do is marvel at them; he has no names for them, so neither do we. The people he meets all have different viewpoints on life – and different accents. I read the dialogue of the first people he meets in a Scottish accent; it was simply how they sounded to me, along with another family that sounded Dutch. This is a world full of everyone, not just a homogenised colony.
Also refreshing is his attitude to Viola. He’s never seen a girl before, so he doesn’t act any differently around her, or think she’s incapable of action because of her gender; nor does he fall instantly in love, or even romantically attached to her – she’s a friend like any other to him. There’s a wonderful moment towards the end where he realises he can use Viola’s body language to tell her moods. It’s a real insight for him, and a wonderful piece of writing.
The book is rich in symbolism. Todd and Viola travel through an unspoilt world to Haven – only a letter short of heaven – always being told that hope is lying there…salvation awaits them if they can only make it.
The knife Todd is given takes on a character of its own as well. He’s given the choice again and again to kill, and he can feel the power of life or death this inanimate object gives him. How he uses it shapes and defines Todd, and he begins to realise a man who kills isn’t who he wants to be. He will not kill, even in self-defence, even under extreme provocation.
Except that’s where part of the story breaks. Todd kills a local intelligent alien – a Spackle – attacking him viciously without provocation; two pages later, the incident is all but forgotten. Yet he refuses to kill Aaron (who is virtually a Terminator – that boy does not stay down!) and the price he pays for letting Mr Prentiss Jr live is high.
Frontier life is brutal, and the violence in the book is brutal as well, not shying away from describing gory details, especially in Todd’s battles with Aaron near the climax.
Some of Todd and Viola’s actions aren’t logical – why are they walking? Why don’t they steal a horse? They could travel most of the way by boat, for instance, and it never occurs to them.
The most wonderful part of the book is one quite a few people seemed to have picked up on – Manchee the dog. Originally, it seems, he’s just there for comic relief, but he turns on the dog loyalty as the story develops, a shining example of dog-dom, unswerving in his devotion to Todd and Viola. No Disney animal here though – his life is poo and squirrels. He’s the star of the show, without doubt.
And it was inevitable that he would die. Unnecessary, but inevitable. Heart-breaking as well, but I saw it coming ten pages before it happened.
There are parts of the book that didn’t work for me. The climax is a cliff-hanger, and I should have felt manipulated by it, but I don’t (Then again, I don’t have to wait for the sequel!). Todd is told things and doesn’t relate them to the reader until a hundred pages further on, a bit of a cheat there, especially for a first-person present tense.
Worst of all is exposition that’s about to begin when –
Oh sorry, I got called away there.
Annoying isn’t it? Imagine a conversation being interrupted by a random horse-rider and then the characters moving on, even though they could have continued their conversation as before.
Luckily, I spotted when it was and wasn’t going to happen, and it produced more of a rueful smile than annoyance. But it was starting to get old.
In some ways, this book is manipulative. It knows what buttons to push, when to hold a finger over those buttons and not push them. Sometimes it holds the finger over those buttons for two hundred pages before pressing them. Todd and Viola are constantly in danger and escaping it, but it doesn’t feel repetitive.
But I didn’t feel manipulated. Like good magic tricks, no one cares if the tricks are good and the reveals are worth it. And they are worth it.
The best trick in the book loops right back to the start of the journey – Todd wonders which fork in the path to take, and when the Mayor arrives at Haven before him, we find out what would have happened if he’d taken the other one. Nice touch. Very nice touch.
I already have the library looking for the sequel. Count me in.
(Review of the sequel “The Ask and The Answer” next month)