The Detainee by Peter Liney was a book that came to my notice when I was reading the Kindle blog – I was extremely intrigued by this post and decided I had to read the book. Something about it set me off – thinking and wanting badly to read about this dystopian society. So the wonderful folks at Jo Fletcher books obliged me (you guys are simply the best! And not because you sent me the book but you always come up with such amazing books!) and sent me a copy when I landed in California. And I gobbled this book up in two days flat.
So the word dystopian sets off a particular image in your brains. (For those of you who love Dystopia as a genre – here’s a 2014 list.) About a ruined landscape, rotting environment or the polar ice caps melted down and the most common, a nuclear holocaust. But with The Detainee, don’t expect a romp through a nuclear wasteland and a band of survivors tripping through the abandoned country-sides and empty yawning highway bridges of the world. No sir. This book is about a group of elderly people striking out on their own, looking after each other in a society in the distant (near?) future where the old and crippled are shipped off as castaways to remote islands since they are a drain to the society. Add to that, the criminals, the kids whom nobody wants, the crippled and medically unfit. All of them shipped away from the Mainland to a remote island patrolled only the sky-satellites. Where an unexpected behavior would result in a ZAP! a violent fried death by lasers beamed through such satellites. Talk about the advances in technology and the cruelties of Capitalism. The book delves into the psyche of such an atavistic society that starts to take shape on this island – where violence is necessary and the old and the weak fall by the side. An all-too realistic island that is heaped to the skies with garbage and rotting piles of waste. A place where the swirling walls of fog roiling in from the sea brings in demons at night that maim, tease and violently kill these helpless old folks.
The story unfolds from the first person narrative of Big Guy “Clancy” – a retired mafia gangster - Ten years a veteran on this island, he has nothing to look forward to except to die - living out his last days of retirement quietly on this island. And by quietly I mean literally by having suppressed his inner self and turning a blind eye to the happenings on the island. Happenings over which he had no control over. This helplessness combined and multiplied several times forth because of his aging, hulking sack of bones capable of nothing more than an occasional sweep of the island perimeters in search of salvage something useful from the rat-infested refuse piles. And then one day – an unexpected discovery of a maze of tunnels built underneath the island changes his life forever.
It’s a bleak desolate vision of the future – one that is only frighteningly true. A warped version of the Lord of the Flies meets Hunger Games. But it ultimately is a big beautiful book about hope. The indomitable infallible nature of the human spirit. The rise of the phoenix that is the battered and bruised human mind. “I can take the bars, but it’s the patches of sky in between that get you.” Spouts one of the characters in the book and this is the defining characteristic of this book. Of how the mind finally trumps over this fallacy and is always homing in on freedom. From the tyranny of a capitalistic society, the oppressive regime of the WasteLords and the transformation of minds corrupt and twisted.
While yes, the main narrative is focussed around the first-person narrative character of Clancy the “Big Guy” and this book has its nerve-racking moments filled with some spectacular action sequences, the ultimate winner for me is the plethora of broken characters in this book. It’s the growth and transformation of such characters that makes for an absorbing read. The harrowing accounts of their abandoned lives in this world that has gone to rot. Peter Linney who’s got a lifetime of journalism behind this book creates a poignant moving narrative penned in a prose that is easy, lyrical and highly original at the same time. Sample the start of the novel that sucks you in straight away. “There’s a scream inside us all we save for death. Once it’s out, once it’s given to the world, there ain’t no going back on it. It’s time to let go, to release your fragile grip on life. Otherwise, God’s just going to wrench it from you.”
Intense and so beautifully crafted, the Detainee is an unputdownable (now I’m inventing words to describe this transcendental experience!) dystopian thriller that deserves all the praise heaped on it. A scathing social commentary on how we treat our old, on the media and the meltdown of values and morals in today’s life. Highly recommended read!