A fantastical, peculiar, and brilliantly-executed début, Paula Lichtarowicz’s The First Book of Calamity Leek is a rollicking take on dystopian fiction.
The eponymous, teenage Calamity Leek lives in a sheltered rose garden along with her ‘sisters’ – an all-female world entirely unto itself, surrounded by a high brick wall, and ruled over by the distant, tyrannous ‘Mother’ and her henchman ‘Aunty’.
The sisters live according to an elaborate mythology, set down in a book they must learn by heart. This belief-system gives their world its own vocabulary, history and even astronomy. So complete is its cultish grip over the girls that you are unsure, at first, whether this is simply a novel set in a parallel universe. It is – in a way.
The sisters live according to an elaborate mythology, set down in a book they must learn by heart. But gradually, through careful hints, and her brilliantly creative use of double-speak, Lichtarowicz makes it clear that this is all taking place somewhere within a world very much our own, and that connivance, evil and downright insanity rather than anything more otherworldly are its roots. Will Calamity herself figure out what we, her readers, have just about deduced – before it’s too late?
The novel is entirely told from Calamity’s perspective, and Lichtarowicz pulls off the difficult feat of ensuring that her audience see what is ‘really’ going on, while Calamity remains under the darkness of her world’s delusions. Nothing is spelled out, and there’s a lot of piecing-together and puzzling-over asked of the reader, but the respect that Lichtarowicz has for her audience pays off.
As you might expect of any isolated community, Calamity and her sisters have developed a distinctive dialect, and Lichtarowicz is particularly strong when it comes to the vocabulary, turns of phrase and linguistic tics that tell of their peculiarity. They speak like no other characters you’ll have met, and their voices shine off the page.
The inventiveness of the macabre world they live in, as created by ‘Mother’ and controlled by ‘Aunty’, is also stunning, a weaving-together of elements from the golden era of Hollywood musicals, Eastern European folklore and goodness knows what else.
It’s hard to know quite what conclusions to draw from the ideology drummed into Calamity and her sisters, which teaches that men are fatal to women, that female beauty is paramount (and that dark, ‘cooked’ skin is the worst fate that could befall anyone), and that the girls’ glorious fate is to one day go beyond the wall and help to destroy the evil hoards of ‘Demonmales’ outside.
It would be crass to assume that this is intended as a direct analogy or fable, tempting as it is to try to take any kind of lesson from the book. Instead, just sit back and enjoy Calamity Leek‘s boldness, brilliance and downright weirdness. It’s unlike anything else you’ll read this year.
Recommended for: Anyone interested in the way the stories we tell ourselves (and are told) shape us.
Other recommended reading: Calamity Leek has echoes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and H G Well’s The Time Machine, so if you’ve not read these dystopian classics yet, this is a good excuse.