A dystopian thriller set in a community that has as much in common with Winter’s Bone as The Hunger Games.
In this debut novel, Nelson tells the story of a walled community in a vaguely Appalachian setting, where “Sentinels” protect the settlement against “Outlanders,” adolescents are “Chosen” for careers, and art is forbidden as a distraction from civic obligations. The unnamed protagonist directs his narration to an unnamed friend (“First time I actually seen your place. Even though I helped you build it”) whom he’s just buried. When authorities have questions about the narrator’s behavior, he’s sent to develop an abandoned orchard on the outskirts of the settlement. He’s also given responsibility for Mirabelle, the young daughter of his friend and an Outlander woman. Through flashbacks, the narrator reveals how his friend challenged the community’s norms and the events that led to his own exile. Ultimately, the narrator must decide how committed he is to enforcing those norms and defeating the Outlanders, and how flexible his standards are in the service of the community. Nelson takes a different approach to common dystopian tropes, such as rebellion and control. The book draws its world in detail, down to a technique for building a roof in violation of official standards, but the narrator’s focus is domestic, and the book doesn’t try to place the walled community within a broader context. However, a conflict over the community’s coal deposits adds a lightly explored environmental aspect to the story. Nelson’s frequent misuse of punctuation in dialogue (“ ‘Want a hand’ he says’ ”) and ellipses (“ ‘It has been...’ snaps his fingers in a circle ‘… one hundred and seven years since the last Outsider Incursion’ ”) can be grating, though, especially when contrasted with the deliberate non-standard grammar of the narrator’s voice (“It ain’t ownership, though, so much as it’s a duty to care”), which helps to establish the rural South setting.
An offbeat tale of freedom and duty in a rural totalitarian society.