The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz opens with an attempted escape.
Truly, one of the girls who live in the Garden, protected by their dear Mother and Aunty, has tried to scale the Wall and get Outside. Her cryptic words, when Calamity and her Sisters find her: “No Injuns.”
Thus we’re pulled headlong into the world of Calamity Leek. She tells us all about Mother, who has rescued them from Outside, and Aunty, who is training them to be Weapons to go to war against the demonmales who dominate the world. All of their knowledge of the world comes from Aunty’s Appendix and Showreel, which she shows them at regular intervals. Calamity is treasured here, close to Aunty, loves her Sisters, and she believes in the divinity of Mother, and in their sacred mission.
Soon enough we learn that Calamity is telling us of a time gone by–in the present, she’s in an Outside hospital and has lost everything she’s known. The book is the story of how she ended up there, and what happened to the Garden.
Calamity is a joy to follow. She’s smart and brave and sure and proud, and completely loyal. What’s heartbreaking is how these wonderful things about her have been used and abused by Aunty. Calamity is strong, and she loves fiercely, but she’s also brainwashed. It’s a heartbreaking combination. Her voice and language are at once foreign and familiar, fitting for a girl who’s grown up in isolation.
References abound in this book, all springing from Aunty’s delusions and background (she’s a disfigured former actress). A lot is left up to the reader to piece together, since we get the story from Calamity’s limited point of view. It’s a bit of a puzzle, but easy enough to figure out when you’re on the outside looking in.
One blurb on the back of this book called it a mash-up of Margaret Atwood and Roald Dahl, and I was trying to figure out where the Dahl came from. I’ve just now figured it out: all of the adults in this book are either completely insane and abusive or completely useless. They’re tyrannical or they misunderstand. It’s the kids making sense of their own world and beating the odds, and through the elevated craziness of Aunty and Mother’s little garden, it’s possible to see how completely off-kilter the adult world is, particularly to children.
The First Book of Calamity Leek is original, creative, and poignant. It’s also funny and smart, chock-full of references and creative use of language. I’ll go ahead and say this has been one of my favorite reads of the year so far.
For readalikes, I’d suggest Room by Emma Donoghue. The story is narrated by a young boy who has grown up in the small room where his mother has been held captive. It’s much more serious in tone and deals with consequences in the real world more deeply, but it also uses a unique point of view to deal with hard issues in a sideways sort of way.
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan might also appeal, for those who love how tough Calamity is. The main character there is a wounded young woman who might have killed a police officer, and is put into a detention center called the Panopticon. You can read my blog post about it here.