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A mysterious plague kills everyone who reaches adulthood. Children struggle to survive, scavenging among the ruins of modern civilization. An army bent on domination marches across the world. A girl sets out, against all hope, to save her people.
This narrative framework sounds all too familiar, tempting one to lump Sandra Newman's most recent novel, “The Country of Ice Cream Star,” in with the many trendy dystopian novels aimed primarily at young adult audiences. Yet in telling the story of Ice Cream Star, who sets out to find the cure for the “posies” that will kill everyone she knows when they reach the age of 20, and Pasha—a deserter from the imminently approaching Russian Federation Army who befriends Ice Cream and appoints himself her protector—Newman manages to craft a story that sets itself apart from the less inspired works crowding the genre.
Two aspects distinguish Newman's work from others in the recent deluge of dystopias. First, despite being about children and teenagers, “The Country of Ice Cream Star” is clearly not written for a teen audience. Violence is frequent, often treated with insouciance, and depicted in excruciatingly graphic detail—this is “Lord of the Flies” on steroids. Sex is also abundant, with none of the shy agonizing over a single kiss that plagues so many teen novels. It might be tempting to compare 15-year-old Ice Cream to the strong female leads currently popular in dystopian fiction, but heroines like Katniss of “The Hunger Games” fall far short of the unadulterated toughness that is the assault rifle-wielding Ice Cream. Not to mention that Ice Cream is able to sustain a mature and complex friendship with Pasha, despite their differences—she is a young African-American girl, he a 30-year-old white foreigner who is somehow immune to the plague.
The other feature that sets “The Country of Ice Cream Star” apart is its brilliantly inventive use of language. Following in the footsteps of “Riddley Walker” and “A Clockwork Orange”, novels that played with the possibilities of dystopian language, “The Country of Ice Cream Star” is written entirely in a dialect of English that has evolved 80 years after disease eliminated all adults and the entire white population of North America. This is an incredibly ambitious linguistic undertaking, yet Newman manages to maintain the consistency of this dialect over the novel's nearly 600 pages. Even more impressively, after only a few pages the language begins to seem natural and—rather than being a burden—reveals its potential to be intensely lyrical and expressive. Clever word choices, such as the almost exclusive use of the word “child” instead of “person,” lend a solidity to the reality Newman creates. Metaphor emerges organically, seemingly a natural linguistic tendency of the children in this world; statements like “children forgot the taste of hunger and the touch of fear,” and “like magic tricks, my contradictions hush,” which might otherwise come off as self-consciously figurative, blend neatly into the text. Newman’s conception is also particularly suited to creating beautifully raw descriptions of Ice Cream's emotions and of the horrors of everyday life in her world. Of the disease that claims her people's lives as they approach adulthood, Ice Cream tells us, “And all their face and skin eat up by red and blackish posies. Posies scabbing and they open into sores and horrors. Posies grown inside and outside, blackish death put roots into your body and its flowers bloom.”
If there is any weakness in “The Country of Ice Cream Star,” it is that it tries too hard to do too many things. Newman seems driven by a compulsion to ensure no dystopian trope is neglected; on a disease-torn continent the action moves from the warring clans of “Massa Woods” to a New York governed by an absolute theocracy based on a twisted form of modern Catholicism to a completely militarized and heavily fortified Washington, DC. To that Newman includes an invading foreign army and an elusive cure for the ubiquitous disease. Meanwhile, Pasha recounts the ills that plague the rest of the world: nuclear attacks, endless imperial wars, rampant drug addiction, sexual slavery, and child soldiers. Individually, each of these vivid episodes seems skillfully composed; strung together they become somewhat exasperating and sluggish, with each new complication requiring extensive exposition.
Newman’s linguistic style isn’t entirely successful, however, and it can feel burdensome in the midsection of the book. While it often lends itself to fresh and inventive writing, Ice Cream's dialect occasionally produces unnecessarily drawn-out descriptions of setting and somewhat stilted retellings of action scenes. These minor flaws are magnified when the plot begins to drag. The action frequently pauses as other characters tell Ice Cream of events that occurred elsewhere. Unfortunately, these interludes are all written in Ice Cream's voice, as if she is telling the story of herself hearing a story, despite the fact that narrative would benefit greatly if such passages were used as a means to develop the voices of other characters.
Additionally, Newman tries to pack in far more social commentary than the storyline can effectively sustain. Some of these efforts are successful. For instance, Ice Cream's relationship with Pasha deftly comments on attitudes towards those who differ from us; even as the two become friends, Ice Cream is occasionally surprised to realize that he is just as human as she is. Pasha teaches her to speak Russian, and she muses, “Always be surprising, that these words work just like speech.” In other places, however, the attempts are glaringly unsubtle—it's certainly possible to guess that the story is partially an allegory for the colonization of Africa, without a girl lecturing Ice Cream not to trust white foreigners because slavery is bad.
Despite these flaws, persistence through the slower sections of the novel pays off, as Newman accomplishes the difficult feat of creating an ending that is both surprising and satisfying. The tale follows Ice Cream and Pasha through so many twists and turns and is packed with so much rich detail of their world that it is easy to become emotionally invested. The magnitude of that attachment, though, might not become apparent until the story's ending unfolds in a spectacle of danger, betrayal, and—perhaps—redemption.
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