Originally published in Scotland, Julie Bertagna's young adult fiction title Exodus was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize, and won the Lancashire Children’s Book of the Year Award and a Friends of the Earth Eco Prize. It is being published in the U.S. by Walker Books in April of 2008. But I didn't request a copy because it was award-winning. I requested a copy because I can't resist Dystopian fiction. And this title lived up to my expectations, keeping me up reading late into the night.
Exodus is set in the year 2100, on an earth that is almost entirely overtaken by ocean after the melting of the polar ice caps. I was a bit concerned, after reading an author's introductory note about global warming, that the book would be too message-y. But I'm pleased to report that Julie Bertagna, while conveying a vivid and cautionary picture of the possible fate of the world, keeps character and story at the forefront of Exodus.
Exodus is told from the viewpoint of fifteen-year-old Mara Bell, who lives in a small community on the island of Wing, in a northern sea. Each year, the ocean encroaches further on their land. As the story begins, the villagers face the fact that their island will soon be lost to the seas. Prowling "the Weave" (the tattered remnants of the world wide web) with a computer gaming device, Mara learns of a one-time plan to build tall, study cities on piers rising out of the oceans. She finds one that she believes is located within sailing distance, and, risking everything, encourages her family and friends to set out for a new life.
Things don't go quite as expected, however, and Mara finds herself living in two very different communities, one perched precariously on the skeleton of the old world, and another that soars high above it.
The first community, one where a few people live a hand-to-mouth existence among the detritus of the old world, is called the Netherworld. Here Mara finds little touches of a past that she never knew about. I personally found this aspect of the story to be filled with hidden treasure, as I, the reader, tried to figure out what Mara was seeing with her inexperienced eyes. For example:
"At last she finds him up on the curving ruin of the building that tops the Treenesters' island. She spies his grubby face peeking out through a large red and yellow plastic sign that's lopsidedly propped upon the building's crumbling balcony; a bright yellow M, like a twin golden archway. Was this once the sign of some special, sacred place?" (Page 136, ARC)
OK, that one is a bit obvious, but it made me smile. The Netherworld portion of the book reminded me a bit of John Christopher's Tripods series, also set in a futuristic world where common items from our world have deteriorated into artifacts. It's amazing, and I'd hope improbable, how far people have falled in only 100 years, and how little they know of the world from before.
The new world city, New Mungo, by contrast, is more like something out of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series, glossy and fast-paced and high tech. The contrast between the Netherworld and New Mungo is jarring. Bertagna has built completely different worlds into the same book, and uses Mara's transition between them to sharpen the contrast.
In addition to the cautionary message about global warming, Exodus also explores gender roles. Mara is a young feminist, wondering about the roles of men and women in history. As she talks with a female friend, one who has big dreams, but is also caring for a baby, Mara reflects:
"As Boomielaw trails off into thought, Mara remembers what bothered her as she walked through the vast halls of the university, looking at the portraits of the golden names. There were no dreamswomen. Apart from the odd mythical figure or queen, not one of the golden names had belonged to a woman. All of the great dreamers had been men.
Now Mara sees how it could have happened. The women might have dreamed just as hard - as hard as Broomielaw does now - but their dreams had become all tangled up with the knit of ordinary life, with meal-making and babycare and nest-building." (page 169, ARC)
Exodus has a lot to offer: a strong female main character, interesting settings, twisting plot, and big-picture questions. The writing style is unusual, sometimes poetic, but also filled with short sentences, and sometimes spare on articles like "an" and "the". It's as though the book was written by someone who loves stories, but who hasn't much time to spare for words, because there's important work to be done. This completely works with the story, and left me feeling like I might just possibly have actually traveled 100 years into the future while I was immersed in the book.
Overall, I was so intrigued by Exodus that I just might have to order the sequel, Zenith, from the UK. I recommend it for teens, and for anyone interested in Dystopian and futuristic fiction. Fans of the movie The Day After Tomorrow will definitely enjoy it (though Exodus offers much more in the way of plot and character). I don't recommend it for younger kids, however, unless their parents read it first. The ideas about the crumbling of our entire society are pretty overwhelming. There are also allusions (though in a very veiled manner) to sex, and there is some violence and death. I think it's a solidly YA title, and that adults will find it compelling, too.
Publisher: Walker Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: April 2008
Source of Book: ARC from the publisher. All quotes are from ARC, and may not represent the final printed title.
Other Blog Reviews: Great Books Reviewed, The Poor Player
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.