Publisher: Pantheon. July 21, 2015
Genre: Literary fiction and kind of sci-fi
First Line: The examiner closed the gate behind her with a swift, careful motion.
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A man and a woman have moved into a small house in a small village. The woman is an “examiner,” the man, her “claimant.” The examiner is both doctor and guide, charged with teaching the claimant a series of simple functions: this is a chair, this is a fork, this is how you meet people. She makes notes in her journal about his progress: he is showing improvement, yet his dreams are troubling. One day, the examiner brings him to a party, and here he meets Hilda, a charismatic but volatile woman whose surprising assertions throw everything the claimant has learned into question. What is this village? Why is he here? And who is Hilda? - Goodreads
The entire time I was reading this book, I was completely fascinated. I've been a fan of Jesse Ball's since I read Silence Once Begun, and this novel doesn't fail to bring another dose of quiet, haunting weirdness. I finished this book in two sittings and only stopped during the first sitting, because I absolutely had to go to bed. You find a nameless "examiner" teaching a nameless "claimant" very, very basic tasks as if he is first being introduced to being a human, despite being an adult. The claimant is told he almost died, but is now healing in the Gentlest Village. It takes a while for the claimant to catch on to what she's teaching him, but once he does, some other memories start to boil back to the surface. We watch their interactions and then we sometimes get to see the examiner's notes about the claimant's progress:
Claimant is matching given data with remembered data--a troubling development.
I really, really don't want to spoil anything about this book, because figuring out what's going on and why is what makes reading this book exciting. The characters are clearly in some strange, sterilized and bureaucratic dystopian system. This is reflected throughout by how alarmingly straight forward the writing is. Especially in some of the stilted, taught dialogue. My only real complaint is that in the last third of the book we get to see the claimant's past, but it's written in a style in which it's being told to someone else. And we're frequently reminded of that. After experiencing such stark, distant prose, it would have been nice to be immersed in the claimant's memories with more casual writing.
I adored the ending. It might bother some people, but I loved the feeling and questions I was left with. What do you need to learn to be human? Do you lose yourself when you lose your memories? How much treatment for depression is too much?
If you like your mysterious literary science fiction a little experimental with some shades of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this will be a great read.
"On the fifth day, she told him about fire, and explained what cooking was. He found fire to be very exciting. He could hardly bear the excitement of it. She wrote this down."
"After breakfast, we will wash the dishes we have used and we will put them away. We will stand for a moment in the kitchen, which we will have cleaned, and we will feel a small rise of pleasure at having set things right. It is an enduring satisfaction for our species to make little systems and tend to them."
"The world isn't the place we are told to live in. It is another place entirely. We have both more choice, and less, than we are supposed to have."
Outlandishness Rating: 7/10