Dystopias and The Country of Ice Cream Star

I’ve been reading a lot of dystopias recently. And I mean a lot, powering through them! I read 7 books in the last 2 weeks alone. This is partly due to the fact that I find Young Adult (YA) fiction easier and faster to read – but also because they are so good that often I can’t put them down! Reading the Hunger Games until the early hours of the morning would be one example of that…

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I have always loved dystopian fiction. From the incredible Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which everyone should read, to George Orwell’s 1984, to Aldeous Huxley’s Brave New World… The list goes on. All are worth checking out.

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But recently there seems to have been an increase in young adult dystopian fiction where the heroine is a teenage girl – great for kids growing up to have such strong female role models that aren’t defined by their gender, especially in a world where women were only 30% of speaking characters in the top 100 films in 2014 (and only 12% of protagonists).

So yes, I started with the Hunger Games. I won’t say much more about them as I am pretty sure everyone in the whole world has a rough idea of what they are – a trilogy in which the population of what used to be the U.S are divided into “districts” distinct to what the industry of their area is – I.e. The coal mining district, the textiles district. They are all ruled over from the Capitol – luxurious, spoilt, cruel. Every year they have the “Hunger Games”, where two children are picked from each district and sent to the Capitol, to an arena where they have to fight each other to the death. I LOVED the films, all of them, but then I do have a ginormous girl crush on Jennifer Lawrence.

I really enjoyed the books as well, especially having seen the films. So much of the books are visual, and they are told really well, through fantastic descriptions, but having the images in my head from the film really brought it to life for me. So I actually didn’t enjoy the second half of the last book as much as I hadn’t seen the film for that bit yet.

Anyway, I then moved on from Hunger Games to Divergent. This doesn’t have such good reviews but I think I preferred it … more YA fiction! In Divergent, society is split into different factions, Abnegation (for the selfish), Dauntless (for the brave), Candor (for the honest) and Erudite (for the intellectuals). Every year, sixteen year olds get to choose either to stay with their families in the faction they were brought up in, or leave and choose a new faction. The main character is Beatrice, also called Tris, and she is AWESOME. Brave, strong, motivated by love for the people around her and conflicting feelings about her family, I just really liked her. The first book also contained a concept that has haunted my nightmares ever since I read the Wind Singer as a child… I will say no more so as not to spoil it but if you have read the Wind Singer trilogy you may know what I mean! (If not, I re-read it as an adult recently and it still sent shivers down my spine).

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But from all of those, onto the best of all. The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman. This book is incredible and not YA fiction at all although it has several things in common with the trilogies mentioned above. It was actually long-listed for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction and has received a lot of praise from certain reviewers for the fact that the country of Ice Cream Star is one in which the vast majority of white Americans have been killed by a plague, leaving only black people. And actually, when I say “people”, I mean children. It is still novel that a book not about race has mainly black characters, but to me there is so much more that makes this book really special than that simple fact…. Which should and hopefully eventually will be so common place we won’t need to comment on it.

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No, for me the most important thing about the world of Ice Cream Star is the fact that it is populated almost entirely by children. The plague that killed off all the white Americans still exists in the form of “posies”, an illness that begins in every child around the age of 18-20 and ends up killing them.

The book is violent, it is sexual – both in rape and teenage exploration of sexuality and sexual desire – it has love and anger and courage in spades. All told in dialect – which makes it slightly harder to get into than any of the other books I’ve mentioned in this post but adds to the forcefulness of the writing and emotions contained within it. It’s the language of inner city Anerica, several centuries down the line, a development unhindered by rules, structures, or the growing up of its speakers. And not only that, but it is Ice Cream Star’s voice, complete with her fears, uncertainties, angers and desires. It makes the writing entirely new and different, in a lyrical, beautiful way, with descriptions of standard things, such as love, sex or even just autumn, rendered entirely different by the language. It is startling and thought-provoking and well worth it. There are some incredible passages:

On posies:

Posies take each person in their sort. Popsicle cough his spirit out. Jay-dee’s belly swell and hurt until she claw it to the blood. Mailman strangle in his throat. He strangle once, then find his breath. Strangle again, and beg for help. Then he cannot bear to wait, he shoot himself in desperate fear. Jennifer been sergeant last. She scream but she forgotten words. Ain’t recongise our faces. Scream a week, then she ain’t speak no more. She stare and dribble her mouth. And all their face and skin eat up by red and blackish posies. Posies scabbing and they open into sores and horrors. Posies grown inside and outside, blackish death put roots into your body and its flowers bloom.

On grief:

At last, I take a corner of his sheet and wipe my eyes. Look to the door. Be like I never seen a door before, its shape look some ridiculous. Wonder how doors be even useful. Why no person making doors, when it be children dying.

And on love:

Then, in this hour stolen from the war, our love be worse beyond. We cling together with no words, until our scary silence be another nakedness. Is loving with no fight, is helpless. Every touch be words insane – and be the only truthful words I known. Be like a perfect name

The threats in this new, foresaken landscape are not just the threat of death from posies or being captured by one of the other groups of teenagers (for example, the Armies, who keep girls just as sexual slaves and abandon any girl children who are born) but also come from the Roos- white adult men from Russia who not only have the cure for posies but are intent on conquering America. The relationship between Ice Cream Star and the Roo she meets, Pasha, is so carefully and cleverly crafted and developed that at every turn it surprises and makes perfect sense.

It’s not perfect – it is perhaps overly long and there are a few slightly clunky sections that perhaps aren’t strictly necessary – but it is wonderful.

Ultimately this book creates a whole world through the eyes of one character – a bleak, devastating, brutal world but an incredible one at that. It is well worth a read. To find out more, check out this interview with the author, Sandra Newman, on the Writes of Women blog.

p.s. Juneathon Day 2 – 5 minutes core workout before work

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