Elmore Leonard said: I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ''full of rape and adverbs.''

Monday, 5 November 2007

Bareback, by Kit Whitfield


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.

12 comments:

RfP said...

I haven't seen this reviewed elsewhere, so it's funny timing that we both posted on it today! I'd had it on my pile for a while; now I wonder if your earlier post prompted me to pick it up again.

I agree, Whitfield's created a fascinating world. It's a dystopia of an unusual sort.

RfP said...

Or... never mind. My review didn't post. Blogger must be "stuck" again.

Meriam said...

I love coincidences and I can't wait to read your review. I liked this book a lot. I think my only problem was the length - it could have been tighter.

Bareback was going to be my 'halloween' post, but I kept putting it off. In the end, I just had to sit down and write the damn thing. I also wanted to do something about breast cancer awareness in October, but couldn't find the time. Keeping a blog is hard work.

Tumperkin said...

This is a great post and you've sold this book to me. I'm going to have to break into reading paranormal stuff despite deciding sometime ago that I didn't have time to get obsessive about another thing *sigh*

Looking forward to RfP's post on this too - I love her thoughtful analytical posts.

Sure is hard keeping a blog. Why do we do it? I keep asking myself this and I still don't know.

Meriam said...

Thank you! Idon't usually read paranormals either, which is probably why Bareback had such an impact.
Having said that, I'm now contemplating a number of paranormals: J R Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series (perhaps it's time to dip a toe into this pool of controversy); Meljean Brook's Demon Angel series; and the folks over at Dear Author have finally convinced me to give Sharon Shinn a go. know she's more fantasy, but it's another deviation from my preferred historical romance bent.

Looking forward to RfP's post on this too - I love her thoughtful analytical posts.

Me too. I think it's time to sacrifice some more broccoli...

Kate R said...

Here's a self-promoting comment completely divorced from this review. It's not exactly spam because it's related to Tumperkin's blog...I do have two books set in the late 1880s. One's even still in print.

Kate R said...

and adding to your TBR pile: have you read Megan Chance's An Inconvenient Wife? It's great but it's not what I'd call romance.

Wait, no. You can't read anything until you've read Cold Comfort Farm which I see is on your list. Oh and For My Lady's Heart, too.

Meriam said...

Hey - thanks! I'll add them to my basket (I'm planning a huge, self-indulgent amazon christmas present for myself in December).

As for Megan Chance - sounds intense and grim. I recently read a number of short stories set in the late 19th century. A lot of them were about the isolation, alienation and mental frailty of wealthy women living unfulfilled lives in this period.

Best not to mention my TBR pile. I'm avoiding it.

RfP said...

My ears were burning (or eyes, fingers, what have you). Thanks for the compliments! I'll try to get back in the swing of things.

Okay... new Blogger options. What on earth?

RfP said...

I'm glad you mentioned this:

"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."

I'd wondered about that. I think Whitfield is right that the local edition heightens the impact. I often find the "what if" more plausible in speculative fiction that's similar to the present day/local culture.

Meriam said...

Yep, absolutely. I found Bareback all the more powerful because it was a (distorted) mirror of my own reality.

Like Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. I never got past the first fifty pages of that novel - even though I love her - because I found it all to real and grim and awful. All that stuff about genetically modified pets and the segregation of the rich and poor - shudder. It's really easy to see the world heading in that direction, and her novel was particularly powerful because she took a few really plausible 'what-ifs' to create her dystopian future.

I really should go back and finish that book.

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