The Great White changed everything. In a world ravaged by nuclear holocaust, the earth is poisoned. Those born with physical mutations are ritually burned. Then there are those the Council labels as Misfit, whose mutations of the mind develop later in life.
Elspeth Gordie is a Misfit. Her mutation goes deeper than anyone knows, and she’s desperate to evade detection. Orphaned when the Council burned her parents for sedition, she’s sent to Obernewtyn - a secluded institution in the mountains where it’s claimed those with afflictions like hers can be cured. But once she arrives there, it becomes clear that visits the institution’s sinister doctor aren’t curing the other misfits. They’re sending them past the brink of insanity. And if they discover her own secret, she could be next.
Obernewtyn takes strands of all my favourite genres, and weaves them into a seamless original creation that’s part post-apocalyptic novel, part dystopia, and part fantasy. It’s pitched somewhere in between, moving fluidly between all, and as a result gets away with defying the rules I’d expect any one-genre novel to abide by. It sets its own rules, and compels the reader to follow. Example: protagonist Elspeth Gordie communicates with animals, and I didn’t once roll my eyes or scowl in disbelief. On the contrary, I relished the fact that while the human society in Obernewtyn had managed to contain and eradicate the types of knowledge that threatened it, the cat Maruman has memories of the Great White passed down through generations of his kind.
The world that Carmody has created is a fascinating and vivid one. Bleak landscapes where yellow vapours come hissing up from the black earth; the cold stone construction of Obernewtyn itself; Carmody builds her world in terms that engage all of the senses. Rarely have I finished a book with such strong impressions of what it would sound like, smell like and feel like to live in its world. Although it’s also a future version of ours, it’s largely unrecognisable. The widespread mistrust of Beforetime inventions means that travel is by horse and cart, and there is very little in the way of technology. Those who are seen as a threat to the ruling Council are burned to death, and oldtime books are forbidden. It’s a time of superstition, where old-fashioned agrarian society meets post-apocalyptic terrain.
I have to confess, I found Elspeth rather difficult to relate to at first. She’s closed-off, desperate to keep anyone from finding out the true extent of her Misfit powers, and this makes her an initially inscrutable protagonist. Although I got to know her world in rich detail, I didn’t get much of a sense of who Elspeth was until half-way through the book, when she began to open up to Dameon and Matthew, two of her fellow misfits at Obernewtyn. From that point, I quickly warmed to her. She’s a product of a society that crushes the individual under the weight of the fear it induces, and every small step she took towards defying that society felt like a personal triumph. My favourite scene is one where she discovers a collection of oldtime books, and marvels at the skill the priests who scribed them must have had to achieve such perfect style. The words and pictures are irrelevant to her - Basic Computer Progamming isn’t much use in a world without machines - but she appreciates the beautifully coloured diagrams. At that point, I felt that she was looking back at me down the centuries, at my advanced and yet equally destructive society. It’s a haunting moment. By the time the action really kicks off, we’d definitely bonded.
Although initially slow-moving, Obernewtyn is a book with impact. It’s not something that achieves ‘perfect read’ status for me, because of my initial sense of detachment from Elspeth as narrator, but there are moments of perfection. I felt that Carmody really hit her stride in the second half of the book, and I’d definitely pick up book two, The Farseekers, on this promise. I do want to return to this world, and to discover if the whisper of romance at the end of this one comes to anything. Anyone who enjoys post-apocalyptic novels, fantasy or dystopia should check Obernewtyn out.