|THE FIRST BOOK OF CALAMITY LEEK
Calamity Leek is a teenage girl who lives, along with her many sisters, in a walled compound known as The Garden. Under the watchful, and more than a little demented, eye of their Aunty, the girls perform their daily chores and undertake their training which will eventually take them out into the big bad world where their job will be the destruction of the male population. When one of the sisters attempts to escape over the wall and brings back news that contradicts what they have been taught, the girls begin to question the worldview that has been presented to them by their aunt, and their elusive Mother.
When Paula Lichtarowicz’s debut novel opens, the reader finds themselves plunged into the middle of a fully-realised world with little idea of what’s going on. The concept of the Garden, and the stories of what lies beyond (roving bands of blood-thirsty Injuns) evoke tales of the post-apocalypse. As the novel progresses, we quickly learn that the truth is much simpler, and much darker. Around the quarter mark, the names of all the girls that live in the Garden are listed, and it becomes obvious that there is a pattern to how these young girls, sisters only in that they are the victims of a heinous crime, have been named.
‘Maria Liphook, Sandra Saffron Walden, Dorothy Macclesfield, Annie St Albans, Truly Polperro, Nancy Nunhead,…’
Aunty, a failed stage actress, presents a worldview to the girls based on the musicals she so obviously adores (and which provide each of the girls with their first name), musicals which all share a strong female protagonist and in which men are often portrayed as domineering, often tyrannical, strong characters to which the women are expected to play second fiddle (Calamity Jane, for example, or My Fair Lady). The girls believe they are being groomed as assassins, who will be unleashed upon the world when they come of age to begin the extermination of the demonmales. The truth, of course, is much more sinister and, while Calamity herself doesn’t have the faculties to work it out, there are enough clues in the narrative to leave the reader in no doubt as to what the Garden is, and what is being done to these poor girls.
In the background lurks the elusive Mother, who worships her long-dead daughter, and who is constantly on the lookout for a replacement, much to the disgust of Aunty. The dynamics between these two women, each damaged in her own way, reveal much of the underlying story to the reader, while keeping the horrible truth hidden from the girls who have never had a chance to learn any better. Lichtarowicz handles these characters beautifully; there is something comedic about them and their interactions with each other, but we are never in any doubt as to how evil they are. They often tread the fine line between human and caricature, without ever overstepping the mark; we, the reader, maintain, for the duration, a healthy fear of them both, and the things of which they are capable.
What makes the book so special, so instantly loveable, is the voice of the protagonist herself, young Miss Calamity Leek. Full of innocence and wonder, the first-person narrative is extremely engaging and cleverly constructed, so that Calamity can tell us everything we need to know without ever realising the import of her own words. It’s impossible not to like the narrator, and her simple, straightforward manner makes what has happened to her and her “sisters” all the more abhorrent when we eventually work out what it is. Her innocence also makes for a spine-tingling climax – never has the question “Is there a kitchen there?” carried so much weight – showing that Lichtarowicz already has an excellent grasp on what makes a story work.
With shades of The Truman Show and Emma Donoghue’s excellent Room, Paula Lichtarowicz’s debut novel nevertheless manages to present a unique and fascinating scenario that could well be happening – to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy – anywhere in the world right now. Populated by fully-formed and interesting characters – a feat in itself, considering the size of the cast, and the similarities between many of those characters – The First Book of Calamity Leek is presented as a story within a story that uses the vagaries of language to present the reader with the truth of the situation while never revealing it to the story’s protagonist and narrator. Wonderful writing and clever plotting mark Paula Lichtarowicz as an author to watch in coming years and The First Book of Calamity Leek as one of the finest novels of the year so far. Despite the cover, the book has broad appeal, and should not be dismissed as the chick-lit that it might, at first, appear to be. Miss this one at your cost.