The One Safe Place by Tania Unsworth; Algonquin Young Readers, 224 pages ($16.95) Ages 10 and up. April 29 publication.
The daughter of the late Barry Unsworth said the idea for this marvelous dystopian thriller came to her while she was at the dentist thinking “Wouldn’t it be great if there were people who could take your place while you were in the exam chair?” and your mind could be somewhere else, “in the mind of a small child skipping happpily down the street.”
The mind swap idea is at the center of this novel set in a future where an overheated earth is reeling between drought and flooding rains, and hunger and greed have made the world a miserable place. The narrator, Devin, has grown up sheltered on an isolated farm with his grandfather, working the land and leading a simple life. After his grandfather dies, Devin heads to the city to find help with the farm. The city is a hostile place, but then he and a girl he befriends find themselves in what seems like a marvelous home for abandoned children, with ample food and water, a swimming pool, a bounce house. There are hints of terrible things going on when children are summoned to “The Place” and emerge changed. Unsworth is a marvelous writer (The wealthy elderly villains of the tale are so ancient they are “scraps held together by cobwebs and spit”). In Devin she has created a remarkable character: He has synesthesia, a rare condition in which two or more of the five senses are blended, a condition which makes him seem odd to the other children but in the end proves very useful. The novel is beautifully paced, the setting vivid, the plot disturbing, the finale thrilling. While some have compared it to Lois Lowry’s “The Giver,” it’s actually more reminiscent of Nancy Farmer’s “House of the Scorpion.”
– Jean Westmoore
Sleep Donation: A Novella by Karen Russell; Atavist Books, 110 pages ($3.99, digital download)
Like many of the bizarre scenarios Karen Russell imagines in her fiction – an afterlife in which former U.S. presidents are transformed into horses, say, or a chilling government plot to turn young women into human silkworms – the premise in her allegorical new novella is unsettling. But this time the nightmare hits closer to home. In “Sleep Donation,” set in a dystopian near future, a lethal plague of insomnia is spreading through the overstimulated, anxious population, leaving thousands of Americans unable to dream or sleep. They’re desperate for an REM cycle to stave off death, but there are few cures for their peculiar wakefulness.
A Miami native shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Swamplandia” in 2012 and winner of a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2013, Russell specializes in creating fantastical worlds that hum with recognizable rhythms. She excels at marrying the commonplace with the extraordinary. “Sleep Donation” may sound like pure science fiction, but with straight-forward and often amusing prose, Russell makes the point of her parable clear: What happens to us as a society, as individuals, when we’re so saturated with information and noise and buzz that we lose touch with the most basic part of our nature?
Available only as a digital download, “Sleep Donation” is kissing cousin to the stories from “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” Russell’s last collection. It’s got more plot going for it, but using this particular format helps Russell narrow her focus while she examines topical fears and the general unease of a population that senses it’s on the brink of cataclysmic change. Consider the wave of panic unleashed when an anonymous sleep donor (tagged “Donor Y”) infects the insomniacs with an undetected nightmare. Lawsuits are filed. The infected, terrified by the nightmare they can’t remember, begin to commit suicide. Donors grow too terrified to donate. The sleepless refuse transfusions lest they get infected, too. The Slumber Corps responds with a massive public relations blitz that feels awfully familiar.
Fortunately Russell, also the author of the story collection “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” uses humor to balance her dark imagination. “Sleep Donation” isn’t a lecture; she seems to be having some fun here.
– Connie Ogle, Miami Herald