Thursday 8 March 2012

Book Review | Pure by Julianna Baggott

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We know you are here, our brothers and sisters...

Pressia barely remembers the Detonations or much about life during the Before. In her sleeping cabinet behind the rubble of an old barbershop where she lives with her grandfather, she thinks about what is lost-how the world went from amusement parks, movie theaters, birthday parties, fathers and mothers... to ash and dust, scars, permanent burns, and fused, damaged bodies. And now, at an age when everyone is required to turn themselves over to the militia to either be trained as a soldier or, if they are too damaged and weak, to be used as live targets, Pressia can no longer pretend to be small. Pressia is on the run.

There are those who escaped the apocalypse unmarked: Pures. They are tucked safely inside the Dome that protects their healthy, superior bodies. Yet Partridge, whose father is one of the most influential men in the Dome, feels isolated and lonely. Different. He thinks about loss-maybe just because his family is broken; his father is emotionally distant; his brother killed himself; and his mother never made it inside their shelter. Or maybe it's his claustrophobia: his feeling that this Dome has become a swaddling of intensely rigid order. So when a slipped phrase suggests his mother might still be alive, Partridge risks his life to leave the Dome to find her.

When Pressia meets Partridge, their worlds shatter all over again.


I'm reliably informed that Pure by Julianna Baggott is the next Next Big Thing, and for once, it's easy to see why.

After all, everything's in there. The component parts of all the appropriate dystopian YA sensations on the tip of your tongue - and mine - are present and correct. In that sense, Pure is practically reference material.

There is, to begin with, a world racked and ruined, wherein some scarcity of resources, and/or simple human selfishness, has led to new divisions being drawn between our fellow Americans. In Pure, the haves are of course the Pures: individuals who were blessedly protected by the Dome at the time of the mysterious Detonations. And the have-nots - which is to say those men, women and children who were outside its impenetrable security seal when everything changed, for richer and for poorer (but mostly for poorer) - take on similarly literal characteristics. These "wretches" are malformed abominations, colloquially understood to be boogeymen, essentially:

"Out of the Dome? It's a death sentence. She won't be able to breathe the air. She'll be attacked. The wretches will rise up, rape her, and kill her. Outside the Dome, the trees have eyes and teeth. The ground swallows girls who have any bit of their human shape left. They are burned alive at stakes and feasted on." (p.327)

Even Partridge, the teenaged son of one of the Dome's original engineers, believes the lie... that is, until he catches his father out on another porky-pie, this one about his mother, who with a certain sinking feeling Partridge realises might still be alive, somewhere out there, in the wastes. Escape is immediately the order of the day.

Meanwhile, on the outside, where every survivor has unaccountably been fused with their most precious possessions, Pressia - who has a doll for a hand - is going to turn sweet sixteen in a matter of days. And in the wastes, there's a draft: when you're as old as Pressia's about to be, you either present yourself for service, or They come get you by force. So needless to say, Pressia plans to go on the lam as well.

Now how surprised would you be to hear her path crosses Patridge's?

What, no? Not at all? Ah.

Anyway, it's a dystopia. As established. Pure is also the record of an at times excruciatingly angsty affair between two bomb-cross'd lovers, and of an uprising against the totalitarian rule of this world's privileged few, masterminded by those less fortunate. There's even, would you believe, a state-sponsored game to make mincemeat of the many, which has randomly selected wretches fight one another to the death.

Thankfully Baggott makes little of these so-called Death Sprees, over-familiar as they assuredly are, but even entirely in lieu of them, the experience of reading Pure is often an oddly nostalgic one. I'll say there are some more original touches, most notably the fused humans, yet this too is an image and an idea that, however evocative, seems altogether... obvious. Never mind the implausibility of it.

On the bright side, in purely technical terms, certain poetic flourishes help to elevate Pure above the median line for fiction fitting this general, Jane Doe-ish description. Baggott is clearly a tremendously talented storyteller - there are instances of marvelous, Mieville-esque imagination, and her picturesque prose ranges from the brilliantly bleak to the bleakly brilliant - but as a whole, as the sum of its many and various parts, I'm afraid this particular story just didn't resonate with me.

Which is to say, Pure has all the right ingredients, in the correct order, and in the proper proportions... there's just no secret sauce to hold everything together. It never quite gels in the way, say, a certain other series did, despite its own fair share of deficiencies. 

Let's not beat around the proverbial bush any longer. The problem, as I see it, is this: The Hunger Games - yes, The Hunger Games, because in my experience this sort of fiction doesn't get much better - had heart. Instead, Pure has head, and a whole lot of said. But what good is intellect without the press of emotion to temper it? What is art without feeling?

I'm sorely tempted to say this is, but that would be unaccountably mean of me, and mostly untrue to boot, so let's pretend that didn't happen. Because there are moments, you know? Beautiful and terrible as well. It's only that they are just too few, and far too far between, for me to be able to wholeheartedly recommend Pure with a clear critical conscience.


by Julianna Baggott

UK Publication: February 2012, Headline
US Publication: February 2012, Grand Central

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  1. I loved this book, too. Baggott is definitely an author to keep your eye on... and buy her back catalog!

  2. Overall, I enjoyed the writer's descriptive writing, it's very visually written, creating intense imagery. Yet it's almost overloaded with the set up and descriptions, so it was a little harder to get through. I prefer a page turner.