The story that takes place in this novel is partially based on an actual youth correctional facility in California and the horrors that had taken place there. What author Peyton Marshall does with this, though, isn’t merely set her story at the time the actual facility existed - she transports the story to a dystopian American future (the end of the 21st Century). It is a society in ruin (as to how is only hinted at via the dialogue between some of the characters) There is a middle class still living in gated communities while the rest of the population exist in tent cities, which are also under guard and full of its own dangers. Technology is still around - but only accessed by a certain class of people. Studies in genetics have made great leaps, to the point where one is able to determine who will be and who won’t be a criminal based on their particular genetic code. For those born with a “defective” genetic code, they are wrenched away from their original birth parents and made wards of the state, to be essentially “reprogrammed” in any number of foster homes - the main one being Goodhouse - which is owned and operated by The Swan Corporation; part prison, part boarding school.
In one of these Goodhouses - in Ione, California - we meet James, the main protagonist of the story and from whom we experience the story through his point of view. He is 17 and is ready to graduate. The story begins with each of the Goodhouse students getting ready for “Community Day”, in which each has the chance to spend some time with a family outside the facility, mainly to give them a taste of what life will be like for them once they leave the facility and reenter the world. The family that James winds up with is a seemingly middle class family, not much different from one you’d find today. It is there he meets Bethany - the daughter of a doctor and head of the household. Bethany takes a liking to James and it is a meeting that will ultimately have unforeseen consequences. Highly disciplined and essentially brainwashed since his youth, James finds that he has some difficulties controlling his thoughts, feelings and behavior while spending time with the family. Everything is tracked - via a microchip implanted in each student: heart rate, whereabouts, etc - each monitored by the officials inside Goodhouse and time and time again, whenever there is a “temptation” to deviate from what he has been taught, he recites to himself the teachings at Goodhouse to help keep himself in control. For James had a traumatic experience when he was much younger and a resident at a previous Goodhouse: a radical religious group called The Holy Redeemer’s Church of Purity had attacked and destroyed his old facility, killing everyone within. Known to the students as “The Zeroes”, they are feared for their absolute hatred of these boys who they see as an evil to be eradicated.
Little by little the story unfolds and James finds himself in a difficult situation when he discovers residents of a nearby prison sneaking their way onto the campus. For they may not be who they appear to be. There is also the added element of extreme discipline, where each student is not only under surveillance by the campus's leaders but also one another - any infraction waiting to be reported, demoting them to a lesser status and/or harsh and cruel punishment. There are also the proctors to worry about - mainly two brutally harsh men who delight in abusing the children with physical violence and draconian punishment. Eventually, when James discovers that Bethany’s father is actually a psychiatrist at the facility - and one of “The Zeroes” who took part in the attack at his old campus - everything unravels and he finds himself literally fighting for his life, unsure of who is with him or against him, forcing him to use his own wits and ingenuity to survive. Bethany’s father sees James as someone “special” and has special plans in store for him. Who is Bethany's father and why is he so fixated on the young student out of all the others?
Now one would get, from the above description, a particular sort of novel and the great thing about this novel is how it is written. There are elements about it that remind me very much of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (a phenomenal novel in its own right). As with Ishiguro’s novel, Peyton Marshall utilizes a mixture of genres: part Science Fiction/Dystopian, part Literary, with some elements of Young Adult (or New Adult? Does it matter?) to come up with a very interesting, unique and entertaining story. 90 percent of the novel falls into a more Literary category with the other 10 percent utilizing some thriller/suspense, YA elements that will no doubt allow this novel to be enjoyed across a wide range of readers. There are some elements about it that didn’t appeal to me much (i.e. the action film-like scenes that occasionally take place) but they in no way take away from the power of this book and the warnings it gives as to how a future America might actually be: the obvious class differences, the treatment of the young, the hyper-surveillance state, religious fanaticism, and most importantly, the questions of identity and free will. Do we ultimately have free will or is everything programmed within our genetic code?
This is a highly entertaining and thought provoking novel and it is superbly written and there are lots of things to think about with regard to the novel’s overall message. Like all good “speculative fiction”, it examines today’s issues and extrapolates where it might just go if not kept in check. Definitely recommended, for lovers of Dystopian fiction, Literary fiction, Young Adult and Thriller/Suspense. It’s all here - with the added bonus of intellectual heft.