The First Book of Calamity Leekby Paula Lichtarowicz
This interesting debut novel is one of those that defy easy pigeonholing.
A group of girls with strange names live in a walled community looked after by Aunty with occasional visits from Mother. They spend their days cultivating roses and vegetables, looking after pigs, and sewing cushions.
At first it appears that the setting for this book might be medieval for they live in a barn with straw beds and furs for blankets; but it’s not. Then I thought it might be a post-apocalypse dystopia, which is getting closer to the mark, but still not quite right. It does gradually become clear though, and the story of how things came to be in this enclosed world and its purpose, will surprise and horrify in equal measure.
The story of this community is narrated by Calamity Leek who, as a teenager, is one of the older girls in the group. Having grown up believing that the world beyond the wall is full of injuns and that she is being prepared for war she has, to us, a distinctly odd world-view. Calamity, being favoured by Aunty, is the keeper of the Index – an ever-expanding book of rules the girls live by, and it is her job to read from the rules each night.
When another of the oldest girls, Truly Polperro makes a failed attempt to get over the wall, Calamity has a hard time believing that Truly wanted to go and wonders what she might have seen. Truly’s desperate act of rebellion will change everything…
This was not an easy book to read at first, given Calamity’s limited life experience and upbringing by Aunty. Her language is full of a mishmash of terms and references that at times reminded me very slightly of the regression in the use of language in Russell Hoban’s wonderful Riddley Walker, although Calamity Leek’s speech is nowhere near as convoluted.
Aunty is a grotesque creation – a bit of Swelter the cook from Gormenghast, some Ignatius J Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, a dollop of Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull, and bizarrely, just a tiny hint of the Hello, Dolly! loving robot Wall-E (believe me, if you read the book, you’ll get what I mean). Whereas Aunty is larger than life, Mother, on the other hand, is dessicated and skeletal.
I’d love to describe more about what happens, but don’t want to risk spoiling anything for you. The timeline also jumps about, so it’s hard to be sure about anything in the beginning. Calamity’s world may be strange, but Lichtarowicz’s imagery is rich, and the promise of a stream of revelations to come kept me reading to the end. (8.5/10)
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I received a review copy from Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz, Hutchinson hardback, pub 7th Feb 2013, 304 pages.