I don’t have a very admirable history with books I do not get. I was the kid who came to school after reading Treasure Island and said, “What do you mean there’s a boat in it?” I was capable of reading Treasure Island – it wasn’t above my reading level or anything – but early on there was something about it, maybe the prose style or some exposition that I didn’t understand, that made me declare that novel to be permanently and pathologically opaque. In college, some wrestling matches with James Joyce turned me into a compulsive annotator, and annotating does help with comprehension. I was in lying-around-on-the-couch mode when I read Paula Lichtarowicz’s new novel The First Book of Calamity Leek, however, and I generally do not annotate when I am in lying-around-on the-couch mode. So here I was in the face of a book I did not get, in the absence of my usual coping device. It was a primal struggle, friends.
And for the most part, the experience was rewarding. I did figure out the novel’s secrets by the end, and – in hindsight – I think the author released information at the right pace. The first half of the novel is maddening – each time I thought I had a grip on who these characters are and why they are in their strange predicament, I found evidence to tell me I was wrong. Or to maybe tell me I was wrong. I do think that this is the sort of book a reader should puzzle through on her own, so I will not be releasing any “spoilers.” Instead, I want to walk you through the plot and introduce the many theories I entertained as I read.
Calamity Leek is a teenage girl who lives in a tightly-knit but deeply strange community of other young girls and two adults. One of these adults is “Aunty,” and the other is “Mother.” Aunty is present more often than Mother, and Calamity has something resembling a nice relationship with Aunty, which is to say that Aunty sometimes invites Calamity to tea and tells her that they are special pals and that she is perhaps Aunty’s favorite niece. It is possible that Aunty has these little bonding sessions with some of the other girls as well. Mother is more distant. When she does appear, she makes pronouncements from on high, and no one is allowed to speak to her or touch her. Think of Mother as a general and Aunty as a second lieutenant (and no – that’s not a hint as to how to interpret the novel. It’s just an analogy I thought of). However, while Aunty can be solicitous sometimes, she also beats the girls with sticks on occasion.
The culture of Calamity’s world takes time to process. The girls live in a space that is protected by a wall. The outside of the wall is called “Outside,” and the girls understand Outside to be dangerous. I suppose the wall is a symbolic hymen of some sort (because what’s New Year’s Day without a little Freud?). The girls are told that there are “injuns” out there beyond the wall – odd, especially for a novel set in Wales rather than, say, New Mexico or Arizona. What these injuns will do to someone who ventures Outside is never clear. Men in general are established early on as sources of danger – they are always referred to as “demonmales,” and even though Calamity has never met a demonmale (as far as she knows), she is aware that they have hot pulsating sticks between their legs with which they perpetrate horrible violence on women.
I spent much of the first quarter of the novel trying to understand Calamity’s world in the context of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Many of the details fit, and I think Atwood uses the word “Aunt” to describe the supervisory figures in her novel. Yet this novel didn’t seem like a real dystopia to me, and I had a hard time grasping why. In The Handmaid’s Tale, the horrible treatment of women and odd domestic arrangements are explained by the fact that nuclear weapons have made most women in the world infertile, so the few who can bear children are a commodity managed by the rich and powerful. In Calamity Leek, we do eventually learn the reason that Calamity and the other girls live in such odd circumstances, but the reasons are less societal and more personal – so I wouldn’t call this novel dystopian even though it has so much in common with Atwood’s novel, which is dystopian.
Other oddities: Calamity and the other girls live in a “dorm,” which eventually we learn to be more of a barn, where the girls sleep in piles of straw on the bare floor. They don’t find these sleeping arrangements unusual since they don’t know anything different, so it’s up to the reader to put the details together. There are pigs and chickens around, but we are told that they live “next door.” Also, Aunty spends a lot of time fixating on the girls’ beauty. They are protected fiercely from the sun and are required to wear headscarves whenever they are outdoors, and certain physical features, like Calamity’s obtrusive ears, are corrected with various braces and other contraptions. “Moisturize” is repeated constantly, like a religious mantra.
And speaking of religion. Aunty and her pathetic nieces do not seem to practice a particular religion, but certain items are revered as if they were icons or relics. The outside world knows Aunty’s compound (if they know it at all) as “St. Emily’s.” I presume they think it’s an orphanage or some such. There are statues of St. Emily around – lots of them – and at some point everyone celebrates Emily’s birthday. There are also references to someone called “the Goddess Daughter.”
Oh, and one more thing: show tunes. Aunty seems to speak in lines from classic musicals, from “how do you solve a problem like Maria” to “practically perfect in every way. “ Les Mis gets a lot of mileage, as does Mary Poppins, and Aunty bears an uncanny resemblance to Miss Hannigan – from her unkempt red hair to her nonstop drinking to her emotional manipulation – though this resemblance is never directly mentioned. While I think I’m missing a few of the allusions because my education in the ways of cheesy musicals is incomplete, each of the girls at St. Emily’s gets her first name from a character from a musical and her last name from a town in Great Britain – yet another puzzling detail to chew over.
In the abstract, this novel is not my sort of thing at all – I usually want to read work by authors who view me (the reader) as an equal partner, not as a dumb kid beguiled by a magic trick. Nevertheless, I really did enjoy the novel. I admire the author’s imagination, as well as her ability to wrangle the details of an unfamiliar and deeply skewed fictional world without alienating me. She releases information about this world at exactly the right pace, and the unsettling relief I felt at the end of the novel was well earned. I recommend this novel enthusiastically to readers who like the offbeat and weird, as well as to readers like myself who only venture away from the mainstream occasionally and judiciously.
I promised I wouldn’t reveal spoilers, and I won’t. But I will say this: if you’re reading this novel and trying to put it into some kind of context, put aside Margaret Atwood. If you’ve read Emma Donoghue’s novel Room, you’ll find some similarities in the way children raised in isolation develop an altered worldview, though I wouldn’t look to Room to crack this novel’s unique code. If you’re really struggling to put this novel in context, if you feel like you’re groping with both hands and grasping nothing, I have two words for you: Miss Havisham. And that is all.