“One of Us”, by Craig DiLouie, is my YA released this year, book 16 of 25 with the Readers Digest challenge.
It’s set in the not too distant past, in a timeline which is different to ours, in small town, backwater America. A sexually transmitted disease has taken hold of the population and babies born to carriers are monstrous – no eyes, no feet, pliable shapes, resembling dogs and gorillas and cats. They’re immediately removed from society and placed in care until they’re old enough to work the land as slaves.
It’s a tale with familiar tropes – teenage kids who are outsiders even though the look ‘normal’ on the outside. Teenagers who are shunned and made fun of because they don’t look like everyone else – even if their insides are the same. The attention is focussed on a small group of kids from both ‘sides’ – those in mainstream school and the so-called ‘plague’ kids, who live in a home outside of town. It reminded me of the X Men narrative – where some think their mutations are abhorrent, others can see that they are a genetic step forward. In the same way as Magneto and Professor X agree fundamentally on the premise but differ on the actions, so too do Tiny and Brain. I do realise it draws on real life, echoing Malcom X and Dr Martin Luther King, which is also made clear.
I really enjoyed reading it, and it’s one of the few books which I’ve been eager to read from the first page. The character voices are distinct and switch from plague kids to ‘normals’ and all in between. We hear from some adults as well, which lends an interesting perspective.
One aspect I was surprised about was the frankness of sex and violence. The girls in the group are barely fourteen but have to contend with adult males trying to have sex with them at regular intervals, on the basis that they don’t carry the germ. These scenes were vividly described and the panic came across well from the girls. In more than one instance it doesn’t end well for all involved, and that’s where the violence comes in – it’s pretty gory. People are covered in blood, heads come off, limbs are broken and mangled. I think I had forgotten that YA does tend towards pulling no punches – even Roald Dahl is pretty blunt in his torture at the hands of the older boys in his autobiography.
The ideas explored are big ones, and ones I didn’t expect to see in this story, if I’m honest. They talk about life and death and value of each human on earth. Of morality and consequences. When is it okay to retaliate, if ever? What if your suffering could be ended by a flick of the wrist, and no-one would miss them? Does that make you a monster on the inside? Lastly – don’t underestimate anyone. They could be a god underneath that pretty dress…
Thanks to Netgalley for supplying me with this copy.