City of Lists by Brigid Rose

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Cover image

This is an odd book, somewhere between The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, and 1984. And yet at the same time it’s unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s the debut novel of Brigid Rose, and is apparently based off of Eckhart Tolle’s teachings (although I didn’t know that until I read some other reviews on Amazon!). Hm. Well, I’ve just finished reading it and I’m still not quite sure what I think, so expect some rambling.

Plot summary:
Neeve meets silent Valentine at her Work Unit. A tentative friendship develops between them and together they summon the courage to leave the regimen of Sixth Compound. Then Lol, unrepentant law-breaker and frequenter of an underground movement, blasts into their lives and their friendship takes a path neither of them could have foreseen.

Thoughts:

Yes. There is a character called Lol! He’s hard to get to grips with, I’m not sure I like him even now. But maybe I should begin at the beginning and make things more clear?

Right. Let me start with the setting. This is a dystopian world where thinking is against the law, where individuality is bad, where songs and TV shows are “streamlined” (a.k.a. censored) and where being an unmarried adult seems to be the sin of all sins. It is a quasi-surreal world that really pulls you in with all its little details — from an alcohol that’s like liquid silver to an underground night club where people where clothing that’s against regulations. Neeve and Valentine — being unmarried adults — live in the Sixth Compound, an almost prison-like environment where their every movement is tracked. It is here they meet and their awkward friendship begins.

The story is told from Neeve’s point of view, and it’s a very involving first person narrative. Neeve is not your classic hero. She is highly empathetic, overweight (a bad thing in this streamlined world, it seems), and very shy and insecure. As a matter of fact, all the characters are not the kind you’d expect to meet — Valetine, whilst good-looking, is painfully introverted. And Lol is a little crazy, manipulative, the kind of person you’re not sure whether to root for or not. I don’t know whether I liked any of them, but I definitely connected with them.

On top of the slightly bizarre cast, the writing style itself is pretty unusual. There is an almost dream-like atmosphere at times, particularly during the flash forwards. Initially I didn’t really enjoy the flash forwards, as I found them a little confusing, but they are actually carefully interwoven with the main narrative, so that as you keep reading things begin to click together satisfyingly. And what I enjoyed about the flash forwards was that they were highly detailed snapshots of small moments, so when those moments pass by in “real time” later on, you have a sense of all the emotions behind the scenes as if it were you experiencing them. (Am I making any sense??)

There is a quiet desperateness to the story. Everyone is oppressed and regulated, and then here’s Lol trying to shove Neeve and Valentine in the completely opposite way whether they like it or not. And Neeve and Valentine let themselves be pushed around — they are almost passive characters, outwardly. The real struggle is happening on the inside, which is why the book reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale, particularly because of the female perspective which is more uncommon in these types of stories.

I don’t want to say too much more because I’m afraid of ruining the story for you, but it’s very hard to sum up this book. And maybe that’s an indication of the type of novel it is — unusual and different and thought-provoking.

On a final note, apparently this book is based off of Tolle’s teachings (to do with contemplation and awareness of consciousness extending beyond the physical self, I think), but knowing nothing whatsoever about the philosophy behind the book didn’t impinge my enjoyment of it.

In sum, this is a weird book. Not a bad thing, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. If you like odd dystopian science fiction stories, you should definitely check it out.

This book is one of my 100+ Reading Challenge!

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About A.M. Harte

A.M. Harte writes twisted speculative fiction, such as the post-apocalyptic Above Ground and the zombie love anthology Hungry For You. She is excellent at missing deadlines, has long forgotten what ‘free time’ means, and is utterly addicted to chocolate.
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