Reviewed by Lindsay Bamfield
Dr Jean McClellan is a leading neurolinguistics scientist working on a cure for Wernicke’s aphasia, the devastating language disorder that can result from brain injury. But for the last year she has not been allowed to work – because she is a woman. The oppressive Pure Movement is in power and women are restricted to the home and domestic chores such as shopping. They are allowed to speak only 100 words a day – for most of us that is about forty seconds’ worth of speech. To ensure this is obeyed, women and girls wear word counters.
When the counters went on our wrists-there was no acclimation period, not even for children- I decided to go about it from the opposite direction. A scoop of ice cream, an extra cookie before bed, hot cocoa with as many marshmallows as would fit in the cup whenever Sonia nodded or shook her head or tugged on my sleeve instead of speaking. Positive reinforcement rather than punishment. I didn’t want her to learn the hard way. Not like I had.
Also I knew something else about the counters. The pain increases with each infraction.
There was no time for me, on that first day, to process the steady surge in charge. Patrick explained afterward, as he applied cold cream to the scar on my wrist.
But sometimes a totalitarian regime needs to make exceptions for its own gain. And they need the expertise of Dr Jean McClellan. As in most repressive organisations, there are supporters and detractors. But who is who? Who can Jean trust? In this fast paced thriller she must make choices without knowing whether friends and colleagues or even family members are her allies or enemies. We learn, along with Jean, what the organisation really wants from her knowledge and skills.
Written with articulate simplicity the punch of the novel is delivered in brief chilling sentences:
My boys do not wear word counters.
They know what happens when we overuse words.
I have five left.
Christina Dalcher explores a dystopian world, where neighbours and family members are pitted against one another. A world where husbands, sons and brothers have power over their wives, mothers and sisters because they, literally and figuratively, have no voice. Which means it’s sometimes better to close ones’ eyes or look the other way. It’s a world where boys and girls must be educated in separate establishments because the lesson girls need to learn before any other, is that they may not speak. And boys learn that they can.
But perhaps even more importantly the novel examines how language and the impact of its use and its restriction affects identity and relationships, autonomy and power at all levels.
You can take away a lot from a person–money, job, intellectual stimulation, whatever. You can take her words even, without changing the essence of her.
Take away camaraderie, though, and we’re talking about something different.
The best dystopian novels are based on truths rather than fantasy and it does not take a great deal of insight to see that the premise of this novel is far from impossible. Totalitarian regimes come in a number of guises and prisons around the world hold those who have spoken out against those in power.
I have used exactly 5.5 days’ worth of words.
Lindsay blogs here.
Christina Dalcher, Vox (HQ, 2018). 978-0008300678, 400pp.,paperback.BUY at the Book Depository (affiliate link)