Saturday, 26 June 2010

Goodman's The other side of the island: simple language and complex concepts

Allegra Goodman's The other side of the island tackles some big issues for a kid's book aimed at around the 10-13 year age group. Climate change, government control, the corporate co-opting of religion and the high cost of individual thinking are all explored within this novel's dystopian world. Honor, the protagonist, lives on Island 365 where the seemingly benevolent Earth Mother holds absolute rule, protecting the earth against 'old weather' by 'ceiling' the few islands left inhabitable after environmental disaster. Each family is allowed only one child, whose name is chosen from an approved list; neighbourhood watchers ensure that citizens abide by curfews; and 'orderlies', bald, blank-faced creatures who look and act the same, exist as a sub human species silently performing menial jobs. But to Honor, this world is 'safe' and 'secure'. She strives for approval at her strict school and is horrified by her parents unwillingness to conform. In an act of teenage defiance, she changes her name from Honor, which with its silent H marks her as different, to Heloise. Soon after, her parents disappear, Honor is relegated to the lowly status of orphan and she begins to discover that Earth Mother's world is not so safe and secure after all.

The other side of the island is a fast-paced, enthralling book that follows Honor's maturing from a confused child to courageous freedom fighter. It has a lot to offer in relation to my research, particularly in relation to successful world-building and combining complex concepts within a fast-paced narrative that uses deceptively simple language and sentence structure. It also indirectly addresses neuro-scientific concepts, particularly in relation to the orderlies who are kept in a zombie-like state through the mind-numbing drugs in their food.

I'd been playing with the idea of locating my creative work on an island split down the middle by difficult terrain and I picked up this book from the library based on its title to see how the author handled it. The isolation of an island lends itself well to a controlled environment while also allowing the possibility of wild, harsh and unpredictable terrain hiding secrets and mysteries, and Goodman deftly manages these aspects in building Honor's world. While she is frightened of the untamed nature of the other side of the island, Honor comes to appreciate its natural beauty and accept that being safe and secure in Earth Mother's world comes at a high price.

Goodman also excels at weaving complex concepts while using deceptively simple language. Her use of short, sharp sentences and key words such as 'safe', 'secure', 'untruths', 'ceiled', 'enclosed' and 'correct', (identified as important through the use of quotation marks) express the essence of the corporate-controlled world of Island 365. Goodman's ability to load simple words with layers of meaning through context is, for me, one of the most impressive aspects of her writing.

I'll be looking out for more of this author's work.