Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review: After by Francine Prose

Let's just all take a moment to contemplate the beauty of someone named Prose becoming an author.

I finished this book at 3 am.   The review may be a little punchy due to lack of sleep.

And now, on with the review.

The blurb for After is vague:
School has become a prison.
No one knows why.
There's no way to stop it.

I started reading, and found a first-person story, narrated by a 10th grader named Tom, a self described "Smart Jock" (as opposed to a Dumb Jock, Nerd, or any of high school's many other labels).  A highschool in the area has just had a bloody school shooting.  The book, published in 2003, references Columbine and Paducah, but of course new incidents continue to be headline news, so it hasn't lost its timeliness.  At first, then, I was prepared for a We Need To Talk About Kevin type of look at what causes these events, and how they affect us.  But that's not what I got.

Tom's school calls in a grief counselor to help them through their fear and sadness.  In order to "make students feel safer," metal detectors are installed at the doors.  Next, students are banned from wearing the color red.  

Soon, things have escalated to the point where when Tom goes to look up Stalin in the school library, all trace of the dictator have disappeared (so ironic!).  By that point in the book, the reader has realized that this is not ripped-from-the-headlines realistic fiction, but some sort of parable about trading individual freedom for imagined safety.

The tone of the book is creepy and menacing.  Prose did a great job at letting the reader experience, alongside Tom, the change from disbelief and "how can this be happening?" to outright fear and horror.  I was fascinated by the approach of taking everyday life and slowly building a dystopian nightmare, which is the opposite of how dystpian literature usually works.

The book suffers from lack of a rationale for the bad guys.  It also has the same issues that The Giver does, in that the science fiction has an element of magic.  How exactly does one use email to brainwash people?  If you are looking for a cohesive plot, you will probably find the book frustrating.  This is where it pays to think of the book as allegory, rather than speculative fiction.  If you can do that, you will find a lot to think about, from how we treat "troubled" teens, to how passive we can be in the face of authority.

3 stars.

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