Zed, by Joanna Kavenna***

Kavenna is an established writer, but she is new to me. I saw the description and—okay, yes, the cover—and I knew I had to read this book. Thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

At the outset this story is electrifying. It’s set in future Earth in what was once London. Beetle is an all-powerful company that governs both business and government; it resembles Future Amazon more than a little. Its employees have Real Life selves, and they have virtual selves that make it possible for them to attend meetings without physically being there. They have BeetleBands that measure their respiration, pulse, perspiration and other physical functions, and those bands are supposed to stay on:

The Custodians Program tracked people from the moment they woke (having registered the quality of their sleep, the duration), through their breakfast (registering what they ate, the quality of their food), through the moment they dressed, and if they showered and cleaned their teeth properly, if they took their DNA toothbrush test, what time they left the house, whether they were cordial to their door, whether they told it to fucking open up and stop talking to them, whether they arrived at work on time, how many cups of coffee they drank during the course of an average day, how many times they became agitated, how many times they did their breathing relaxation exercises, if they went to the pub after work and what they hell they did if they didn’t go to the pub, how late they went home, if they became agitated, angry, ill, drunk, idle at any point during any day, ever.

Of course, it is possible to avoid the entire Beetle system, but there’s almost nothing that someone that is off the grid can do for a living; these people scuttle about in abandoned buildings, living miserably impoverished, private lives.

Those in high positions of responsibility have Veeps, which are virtual assistants that run on artificial intelligence. There are few human cops out there because those jobs are done by ANTS—Anti-Terrorism Droids—and these in turn follow the protocol, which says they should shoot at their own discretion. And all of these things lead up to the murder of Lionel Bigman, who bears an unfortunate resemblance in both body and name to George Mann, who has just cut the throats of everyone in his family. The ANTS find Bigman and kill him.

The aftermath features the sort of government whitewash and cover-up that every reader must recognize. The error was caused, say the higher-ups, by two factors: one was Mary Bigman, wife of Lionel, the uncooperative widow of Lionel who demands answers and is therefore conveniently scapegoated; and Zed, the term for chaos and error within the system. And Zed, unfortunately, is growing and creating more errors which must also be swept under the virtual carpet.

Those dealing with this situation are Guy Matthias, the big boss at Beetle; Eloise Jayne, the security chief who’s being investigated for saving the life of a future criminal that the ANTS had been preparing to shoot; Douglas Varley, a Beetle board member; and David Strachey, a journalist torn between his paramount duty to inform the public, and his self-interest that suggests he shouldn’t rock the boat.

Once the parameters of this book are defined, I am excited. The book could be the bastard antecedent of some combination of Huxley, Rand, Vonnegut and Orwell. The possibilities! But alas, though the premise is outstanding, the execution is lacking. I have gone over it multiple times trying to figure out what went wrong and what could fix it, and I am baffled. All I can say is that by the thirty percent mark, though a major character is running for her very life, the inner monologue drones until I am ready to hurl myself into the path of the ANTS just to end it. All of the fun stuff has been offered up already, leaving us to slog our way out of it. How could a story so darkly hilarious and so well-conceived turn so abstruse and deadly dull?

Nevertheless, I would read Kavenna again in a heartbeat. Someone this smart will surely write more books that work better than this one. But as for you, read this one free or cheap if you read it at all.

The Caregiver, by Samuel Park*****

TheCaregiverThe Caregiver is one of the year’s best surprises. I read this book free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. Our protagonist is Mara Alencar, and our setting is split between present day Los Angeles, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the 1980s. I am drawn to the story initially because of the setting, which I don’t see often; but it is Mara that keeps me turning the pages. Those that treasure excellent, character-based literary fiction should get this book and read it.

Mara is just a kid, and all she really wants is food, shelter, and the comfort and companionship of her mother, Ana. Ana is a young single mother that works as a voice-over actress, repeating the lines of English-language programs in Portuguese. The pay is low, and Ana’s self-discipline is negligible. Life is a constant struggle.

One evening Ana is visited by a group of students that claim they plan to rob a bank in order to fund a revolution. Ana’s job is to distract Chief Lima so that a comrade can be liberated from prison. The comrade will play an important part in the revolution; as for Ana, she will be paid handsomely, and then she will be free to go if she likes. Mara doesn’t like these rough people and their threatening demeanor, but Ana hears the amount they will pay, and once she receives an advance, she’s in.

Everything is seen through Mara’s eyes, both in childhood as these events unfold, and later, looking back during her years working as a caregiver to a manipulative older woman that shares some of Ana’s characteristics. As a child, Mara is often afraid or confused, or both. Her mother reminds her often that she is all that matters, and that the two of them will always be together; in the next moment, she will do something so blindingly selfish, so completely inappropriate that I want to yank the woman into the kitchen and remind her that she has a child and responsibilities. She will tell Mara, not for the first time, that she could never stand to lie to her because they are so close, and she loves her so much; but we turn the page and sure enough, she lies to her child, or she is gone for days on end with no warning or explanation. There are occasions when she seems to lie unnecessarily, and I want to throw my tablet at the wall, I am so frustrated.

The ending is a complete surprise, and it makes perfect sense within the chaotic context of the time and place.

The most admirable aspect of this story is the consistency of the narrator. A writer that can tell a story from a child’s point of view without mixing up the developmental level that affects a child’s perceptions, vocabulary level, and capacity to analyze what she sees is hard to find. A male writer that can do this, and that can also consistently write a woman’s story in the first person without giving himself away is a unicorn. Samuel Park convinces me that I am listening to a woman tell her story, and repeatedly I am pulled under, only to be reminded when I go to make notes at the end of my writing session that this is a male novelist. This doesn’t happen. I am gob-smacked at his level of perception and originality.

I never met Park, but I grieve for him anyway as a reader. Please come back, Mr. Park. One book is not enough; forty-one is too young.

Highly recommended.