Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Bareback by Kit Whitfield

SPOILERS FOLLOW SPOILERS FOLLOW SPOILERS FOLLOW

NOTE - this was released as Benighted in the US.

Lola Galley lives in a world where over 99% of the population are lycanthropes. As a 'bareback' for the one night a month of the full moon she patrols the town searching for transformed citizens breaking curfew, taking them into custody and prosecuting them. We follow her life over the course of one investigation.

This book is going to be pretty difficult to review, hence the vague summary above. And I apologize if I go stream of conciousness here.

First off, I wouldn't class this as urban fantasy. For me, urban fantasy transports you to another world, this is more like being smacked in the face with a reality shaped brick. I'd classify it as alternative history, set in a world where there are no simple answers, only difficult choices. I wouldn't recommend reading this book if you are feeling depressed.

Lola works for DORLA (Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity). Everyone who works for DORLA is anmorphic - barebacks. They are the minority of the population put in charge of the majority when that majority cannot be responsible for their own behaviour - on the night of the full moon. DORLA have a separate legal system, they arrest without trial, interrogate, disappear people. But they do it within the framework the majority have given them. From the moment they are born a bareback's life course is already set, they will go to work for DORLA, there is no other choice for them.

Lola is not an easy character to like. It's written in very tight first person. So we experience the moments where she thinks one thing about a person but manages to say the right thing. Also where she argues with someone to inflict hurt - it doesn't make you feel better just temporarily superior and then leaves you empty. I jotted down whilst reading that she wasn't sympathetic but I feel this is wrong. It's only by reading the whole book that you understand her. Particularly her confrontation with SPOILER at the end, as she is trying to explain to a lyco what being a bareback is actually like. Her story is heartbreaking because she is caught in a hard and brutal life that she cannot escape from.

I don't want to make it sound like a complete downer.

'Evening,' he says.
'Yes, it is.'
'What are you drinking?'
'Alcohol. It makes me drunk. You can get it almost anywhere.'

One of the review quotes on the cover of my copy said it echoes 1984, and I can see that. I'd also compare it to the film Equilibrium. In the film John lives in a world where emotion is suppressed, he is opened up to there being something more through Mary. In a similar way through Paul and Leo, Lola's life is opened to something new but it's such a fragile delicate thing. At the end of the book I was hopeful but I prefer happy endings. Some people may find the ending unsatisfying, but I think it fits with the tone of the rest of the book and is realistic to the world in which Lola lives.

There is a passage on page 251 which I think is the heart of the book.

"He didn't know this was the end of his life. If nobody warned him, he couldn't have known that he should have loved those last hundred yards, that they weren't just an obstacle to getting to where he planned, that the sounds of his feet on the pavement and the wind in the branches were all he was ever going to have."


You could take those words and apply them to most of the characters we meet - Lola, Paul, Johnny, Marty, Nate. I think on a re-read, I'd be mentally saying to the characters these are the moments you need to hold onto.

The story is beautifully crafted and I was tempted to give this an A. I don't think my review has done it justice. The reason I've dropped a grade, is that I'm not sure it's a book I would read again. It's made me think, still a couple of days after I've finished it I'm thinking about it. But I don't want to revisit Lola's world any time soon.


Every so often I'll come to associate a book with a song. In future if that happens I'll include the song at the end of the review. So for Bareback:-

Hello by Evanescence

8 comments:

scooper said...

I've got this book on my wish list. I'm a little iffy about it though, especially after reading your thoughts on it. I think I'm going to wait until I can get it at a reduced price and have no other books that I'm dying to read. Thanks for the review.

Nicole said...

This isn't one I've heard of before, and while it sounds like an interesting twist on lycanthropes, it doesn't sound like a book that fits my current reading preferences. I'll keep it in mind, though, for when I feel like a more thought-provoking book instead of an escape from reality.

LesleyW said...

I do think you need to be in the right frame of mind to read it.

I hope I haven't put people off reading it. I do think it's very well written.

But it wasn't an escape to read it. I found myself thinking very deeply about the choices that Lola makes and how easy it is to say I would have done things differently.

Naomi said...

I found this a hard book to describe to people because there so many elements to it that I thought were key. Prejudice being the foremost, but also issues like family and trust. I loved it, which is no secret, lol, and like you found myself thinking about it for days afterwards.

I think it's probably worth noting just for interest's sake that the book was marketed as urban fantasy/sci-fi in the USA and as literary fiction here. I'm not sure which tag fits it better.

LesleyW said...

Naomi - I think this is why I found it difficult to review. I wanted to try and give people an overview of the book, but everything is so interlinked that before you know it you're talking about the whole plot. And I didn't really want to do that as I think it would spoil the book for people.

Nicole said...

(Just an FYI - I think you're a Rockin' Blogger. I posted details on my site.)

You didn't put me off of the book, it's more that you warned me to read it in the right mood. I'm not sure when that will be, but it will probably come around sooner or later. =)

Naomi said...

Good call, Lesley! It's horrible when you read reviews that give everything away. At least you have the decency to put spoiler warnings up!

LesleyW said...

Nicole - Been over to your blog. Thanks for being so nice. :)

Naomi - I try to include enough info so people will get an idea of what the book's about. If ever I'm too vague I hope someone will let me know and I'll try and clarify what I mean.