I don't quite know what to make of Fearless, the first young adult novel by award-winning British author Tim Lott. Lott uses a dystopian setting to explore intriguing ideas about order vs. chaos, individuality, bravery, and justice. Fearless is beautifully written, with spare and moving prose. It was long-listed for the 2007 Guardian prize, and I can see why. And yet ... I'm not sure whether kids will like Fearless or not.
The trouble is that it's part realistic novel and part dystopian fable. The confluence of these two approaches is sometimes disconcerting. On the one hand, we have the main character, Little Fearless, coming up with a clever scheme to escape her draconian school. On the other hand, we have children filling a bottle full of tears, and a chemical analysis performed in which the exact number of tears is counted, which is clearly ludicrous. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Fearless is the story of a girl nicknamed Little Fearless. As a young girl, she is taken away from her home, and the only mother she has ever known, and taken to a prison disguised as the City Community Faith School. Girls believed to be juvenile delinquents or "mindcrips" are imprisoned there, with no contact with the outside world. Their real names are taken from them, and they are known only by letters and numbers (and the nicknames that they give themselves). Their lives are severely narrow and regimented.
Little Fearless, however, is a rebel, refusing to bow to the anonymity and obedience expected of her. She is a constant trial to the head of the school, the Controller, and faces regular punishment. After one confrontation with the Controller, she decides to find a way to let the outside world know what's going on in the school. She's sure that if people understood how poorly the girls were being treated, they would step in right away to enact change. She demonstrates unwavering bravery and strength of character in her quest to do the right thing. Circumstances, however, are not in Little Fearless' favor.
Little Fearless is brave, but as a character she's a bit too good to be true. Despite having been oppressed and under-educated for her whole life, she speaks with an eloquence and evangelism that a child in her situation seems unlikely to have learned. Here's an example:
"Thank you for taking my head out of my clouds of confusion. For now I realize it was the confusion that was hurting me more than anything. But if you think that by using cruel facts as hammers you will break my spirit, you are wasting your time. For my mother's -- my dead mother's --- sake, I will survive and I will be strong. And you will never -- never -- turn me into your creature, Controller, for all your heartlessness." (Chapter 1, The Institute)
Basically, it's a speech disguised as dialog. The Controller does this too:
"The point is, the worst thing in the world is no unfairness. Do you know what it is?"
"Cruelty?" said Little Fearless innocently.
"No," replied the Controller evenly. "It is chaos. And since the war started, we have been constantly under the treat of chaos. Rules may be fair or they may be unfair. Frequently they are unfair. But it doesn't matter. They keep disorder at bay. So we have to believe in them. Or, if we don't believe in them, at least to pretend to believe in them, for the common good." (Chapter 1)
There are a number of things that I liked about Fearless. I quite enjoyed the character of Stench (a girl who works in the school garbage dump). Although of limited intelligence, she persists in seeking her dream of family. I also appreciated the multi-faceted nature of the Controller, and his tension with Little Fearless. Other aspects of the book are thought-provoking. The way that ordinary citizens spend their time glued to vast "vidscreens", essentially brainwashed, contains just enough truth to be disturbing. The way that the Controller punishes the girls by taking away their individuality bears echoes of Naziism. The way that the girls react to their imprisonment and the constructed hierarchy within the school say much about the impact on totalitarian regimes on the spirit of the individual.
Overall, I think that Fearless is a title that will win awards and garner critical acclaim. And it should. It tackles lofty ideas, with graceful prose. However, I remain a bit skeptical of the book's kid appeal. I'll be interested to see how it does in the marketplace.
Publication Date: October 9, 2007
Source of Book: ARC from Candlewick's "Books Worth Blogging About" program
Other Blog Reviews: M & C Books, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Welshcake
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.