No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, January 06, 2013

2012/52: Bareback -- Kit Whitfield

Interrogators are men, usually, men with missing feet, ruined faces, mauled genitals. The worst, the unusables, the ones who'll never be the same again. ... [they] may be missing a kilo of flesh, but it doesn't slow them down. ... They learned a long time ago that however much flesh you take from another man, it'll never replace your own. [p. 250]
Lola is not a lycanthrope: she's a 'non', wholly human, which puts her in the 0.4% non-lyco minority in the nameless (though Londonesque) city where Bareback takes place.

Like all nons, Lola is employed by DORLA, the Department for Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity. Every moon-night she and her colleagues police the lycos -- who have, at moonrise, become lunes, not wholly human -- and enforce the curfew. Of course, once a lyco has gone lune they don't necessarily remember why the curfew is a good idea, or why they shouldn't resist being taken to the nearest shelter ...

There is little that is comfortable about Lola's life. Her early experiences, in the creches which shelter non-lyco children on moon-nights, are traumatic and embittering. Her relationship with her lyco sister Becca is strained, though she adores Becca's baby son Leo. She has few friends. And when she meets Paul, a lyco social worker who gives her refuge when she needs it, she's absolutely ready to fall for him.

However, the cases she's working on (a DORLA colleague shot with a silver bullet, a curfew-breaker who claims his car broke down) begin to overlap with one another, and then with other aspects of her life ...

Lola isn't an especially likeable character, but she's easy to empathise with. What I liked most about Bareback, though, was the world-building. The novel is scattered with throwaway detail: UN-enforced moon-night truces between countries at war, the role of rural nons in protecting livestock, the scientific theories about what causes nons to be born abnormal, the black market in used DORLA combat gear. (Hey, it's a fetish.) The lyco / non divide is as stark as -- though not equivalent to -- divisions of class, race, gender in our own world. (I don't recall the race issue coming up in Bareback, though I may simply have forgotten it: class and gender, though, are certainly present, skewed by the wolf in the room.)

The prose is beautiful: full of stark philosophy and the harsh light of Lola's perception of human behaviour. And throughout the book, the unspoken question: would she rather be lyco? And if others had the choice, what would they choose? What would they do, to choose?

I am very much looking forward to reading Kit Whitfield's 'mermaid' novel, In Great Waters.

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