This was the second of my two unexpected pleasures. And it couldn’t be more different from a gentle regency romp if it tried.
Not exactly a romance, although there is a love story at the heart of the novel, it isn’t precisely a paranormal either. Yes, there are werewolves involved, but the manner in which Whitfield tells this story - so prosaically and with such matter-of-factness - makes the extra-ordinary very ordinary indeed.
In fact, it is our heroine Lola Galley who is out of the ordinary. As a ‘bareback’ she is part of the minority: the 2% of the population born with a rare defect that makes them unable to turn.
Life is easy for the ‘lycos,’ or the majority. Once a month, on the full moon, they lock themselves up and 'fur up.' A full moon means something entirely different to the ‘nons’. They get to patrol the eerily silent streets and parks, on dogcatching duty. For there is always a were or two breaking curfew - the winos, the serial re-offenders, those wanting to roam free. And so the barebacks provide a valuable social function: they regulate the world when the werewolves can’t.
The reality of this existence hits you fast. In the first page Lola mentions her scars - ‘we’ve all got scars.There’s a deep slash running up the inside of my left forearm from my first dogcatch; a heavy dent in one of my hips from when I was twenty-two; a map of lacerations around my calves - and I’m a good catcher, I get mauled less than most.” This is normal. The maiming or death of a catcher does not make the news.
For the rest of the month, Lola works as a legal advisor for DORLA, the Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity. There’s no choice involved; every non-lyco is conscripted into the service at the age of eighteen, where they are taught everything they need to know in their chosen field of work, plus administration, animal handling and marksmanship. Lola’s life could not be any more different to her lyco sister, Beth, with whom she has a strained and distant relationship.
The story begins with the mauling of Lola’s good friend, Johnny, who loses his hand on a catch gone bad. Lola is forced to defend his attacker, a lyco with a mean streak and a very patchy defense. A few days later, Johnny is shot dead. When a second DORLA agent is killed in a similar manner, Lola is left to solve the case before she becomes the next victim. Naturally her investigation uncovers anomalies, lies and deceptions that lead her to the very heart of the organisation she works for. Alongside this, she falls into a relationship that challenges all her closely held prejudices, reexamines her relationship with her sister and attempts to make peace with her own troubled and violent past.
It’s a paranormal, a whodunnit, a love story and a cautionary tale all wrapped up in a dark and unrelenting package of cynicism and gloom. In a nutshell.
This is Whitfield’s debut novel and there are many things to praise. The world building - so perfectly rendered that every fantastical detail seems normal and mundane. In her blog, Whitfield mentions how important it was that the book, set in a fictional city, seemed as local as possible to the reader. Thus, the US edition adjusts language and references to make it as un-jarring as possible. She deftly weaves historical and contemporary events and situations into the story, from the Inquisition to dealing with HIV, until you can’t tell where the unreality begins.
Perhaps the best thing about the novel is how the differences between the lycos and the nons is portrayed. Through Lola’s eyes, you see how she and her kind are percieved; as a social stigma, a family embarrassment, a ghoul and a bogeyman. “Be good or the barebacks will get you.” Lola wears gloves in public - no matter the weather - so no one will see her tender, uncalloused palms and know her for what she is. Nons live apart, socialise apart and work apart. They are feared by the general populace, representing terror, imprisonment and a draconian system of rule that falls outside the remit of the ‘normal’ world. When it becomes clear that nons are being targeted for assassination, Lola’s anger is bitter and fierce:
“It’s so perfect. Of course. They lay down rules that set us to guarding them from each other every month. We bleed and die and have to treat them with tender caution because if we hurt them the least little bit when they try to kill us, then the next morning they’ll rise from their beds and sue. For this they call us names and pay us nothing and let it be known that they despise us.”
But there is a flipside. We get to experience the brutal and unchecked power of DORLA. When a lyco is brought into the system, there is nothing to save them from violent interrogation or prolonged detainment with no charge. It's a two-way thing, a dark and symbiotic relationship.
This mutual fear and resentment is reinforced through the names they have for each other ‘barebacks,’ nons,’ ‘doggies’ and ‘lycos;’ through popular childhood nursery rhymes and cautionary tales.
Whitfield writes well, and powerfully. There are scenes of tenderness, of brutality and gruesomeness and it’s all held together by some very lovely prose and striking imagery: “I can hear his breathing dragging over his shredded throat like metal over stone.”
B+ for this. At 550 pages, it’s a long read but gripping and thought provoking.
Note: the US version of this novel is called “Benighted.” According to Kit Whitfield’s FAQ, the US publishers thought Bareback would give the wrong impression. Or something.