Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The Ask and The Answer - Patrick Ness

This review first appeared on Vulpes Libris.

Read: July 2009

The Ask and The Answer
in one Tweet-sized chunk:

A penetrating and perceptive, edge-of-the-seat intrigue with a host of engaging characters.

“Not everything is black and white, Todd. In fact, almost nothing is.”

The Knife of Never Letting Go
ended on a cliff-hanger. Having spent the entire book fleeing for their lives across New World, with a marauding army laying waste to towns and villages behind them, a psychopathic preacher trying to kill them, and with Viola wounded and near death, Todd stumbled into Haven only to find they were too late.

“We were in the square, in the square where I’d run, holding her, carrying her, telling her to stay alive. Stay alive till we got safe, till we got to Haven so I could save her-
But there weren’t no safety, no safety at all, there was just him and his men-”

For unbeknownst to them Mayor Prentiss has arrived first. The city has surrendered without a shot being fired. Now he is President, and Haven has been renamed New Prentisstown. The Haven they dreamed of throughout the first book is now just a bigger, harsher version of the town Todd left. It is a beginning befitting of a book in which an insidious air of fear and impending doom replaces the relentless hope the characterised The Knife of Never Letting Go.

New Prentisstown has its surprises, most notably a Noise suppressant which allows men and women to live in harmony together. But that is the first thing to go. By confiscating it, the Mayor sends the entire population into a frantic cold turkey come down which becomes another tool in his authoritarian control. In the gender apartheid that follows, the Mayor seeks to recreate society as he wishes it.

“The borders between men and women had become blurred, and the reintroduction of those borders is a slow and painful process. The formation of mutual trust takes time, but the important thing to remember is, as I’ve said, the war is over.”

Yet the interesting thing about this segregation is that it does not appear to be based on a belief in the weakness of women, but rather their strength. Mayor Prentiss’s hatred of women is not a sexualised or violent misogyny, but rather a cold and aloof one born, one suspects, of fear and hurt. But that is long in the past. Amongst the ensuing cacophony, his control of Noise sets him apart as a man to be feared, a man not to be trusted, a man able to keep secrets in a world where other men’s thoughts are as transparent as if they were speaking them aloud.

Another great departure from the first book comes as Todd and Viola are separated and the narrative splits between them. At first they don’t seem to do too badly. Each is kept alive in bearable conditions, Viola for what she knows, and Todd for something unspecific, some unrealised potential the Mayor sees in him. Viola is locked up in a House of Healing, a sort of hospital run exclusively by and for women, under the direction of Mistress Coyle, while Todd is partnered with Davey Prentiss and set to oversee the management of Spackle (the native alien species on the planet) prisoners who have been quarantined on the edge of town. There he is forced to do the Mayor’s bidding, ‘processing’ the Spackle, managing them, dampening their spirits. The Mayor’s Noise reverberates inside his head; he cannot escape the omnipresent cajoling.

The chapters alternate between Todd’s punchy voice and the crisper, more orthodox narration of Viola. Yet the effect of this is to spread the focus of the plot away from them. They are no longer in control of their destinies, the crux of the story moves to those who control them. In Viola’s case this is Mistress Coyle, for Todd it is Mayor Prentiss.

Each, but particularly Todd, is driven to rationalising the actions they are compelled to take. Todd tries to convince himself that it is better that he be the one doing these things, someone who cares for the Spackle wellbeing, rather than the Mayors infinitely crueller henchmen.

What else can he do?

Then the attacks start. At first they are just raids on shops but are soon followed by explosions. What at first appeared to be a peaceful passing of power turns out to have inspired the reformation of The Ask, a guerrilla band of women led by Mistress Coyle and originally formed during the Spackle Wars. Soon, and without much choice on their part, Todd and Viola find themselves on opposite sides of a war being fought between competing ideologies and systems of control. As they each seek to justify and explain their actions, their once unbreakable bond begins to waver, as rumour and separation give way to doubt and suspicion.

Who is right when both sides are wrong?

The Ask and The Answer
is a book of questions. We are the choices we make, that is its message. How we respond to these questions defines who we are, and how we feel about the choices made defines our place in the world. There are no right or wrong choices, Ness seems to be saying, no black and white just a whole lot of grey uncertainty. It is a pretty bleak book. As Todd and Viola stumble between difficult choices with harsh consequences the reader becomes almost personally culpable, through association and loyalty, for the mess that follows.

It would all be so much easier if the Mayor were a one dimensional evil presence. But he is more complicated than that. He makes generous gestures, offers reasonable arguments and rational explanations. He can be warm and friendly when it is in his interests to be so. But he keeps his motives to himself, and it is these motives that seem to harbour all his malicious intentions. He says he has The Answer, but in trying to impose it just poses more questions. Similarly, Mistress Coyle is far from a heroic freedom fighter and The Ask, while posing many questions, seem to have relatively few worthwhile answers. When the veneer of political opposition is stripped away they can be seen as little more than a destructive force bent on retribution and settling old scores. In fact, it would be perfectly possible to argue that in their righteous single-minded crusade, the guerrillas incidentally become at least as accountable as the Mayor. If not more. If war is destructive, then aren’t those who actively pursue it not the most guilty of all?

And the problem with seeming omnipotence is that there is always someone who will come along and challenge it. Increasingly powerless, Todd grows ever more furious. And that fury is something not even the Mayor can control.

The Ask and The Answer
is a superb sequel. Along with The Knife of Never Letting Go it was the best book I read in 2009. Although less breathlessly exciting than its predecessor, it is a more penetrating book, one whose ideas ruminate long after the adventure is concluded. It is perceptive, edge-of-the-seat enthralling, and populated with superbly powerful characters. Just as The Knife of Never Letting Go commentated on contemporary themes such as knife crime and gender stereotyping, The Ask and The Answer tackles debates around governmental control, legal opposition, and the War on Terror. It is a book with significance far broader than its own plot.

Yet it is noticeably the middle book in a trilogy. Sandwiched between the freshness of the first book and culmination I anticipate in the third, it can feel a little passive. Things are building, forces are amassing, situations are reaching boiling point. Yet this is all presented in tiny incremental shifts. There are neither great denouements, nor clear ends in sight. What is started here will find no resolution until Monsters of Men is published in May 2010.

Patrick Ness is an awesomely talented writer, controlling information to shape the responses of his readers and drawing them into emotional and intellectual engagement with the events taking place. I am utterly hooked. When it is released, there will be a fight in our house as to who gets to read Monsters of Men first. It was 240 days and counting when I reviewed The Knife of Never Letting Go; now it is 124. And still I’m counting.

Perhaps it is best to finish as The Ask and The Answer begins, with its Friedrich Nietzsche epigraph:

“Battle not with monsters
lest you become a monster
and if you gaze in the abyss
the abyss gazes into you.”

** Earlier this week The Ask and The Answer was named as the winner of the Children’s Book Award at the 2009 Costa Book Awards. The judges described it as “a major achievement in the making.” The  overall Costa Book of the Year will be chosen between the five catagory winners and announced on Tuesday 26th January.

9.5 out of 10

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