The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman

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The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Linguistically difficult to begin with, this tale of one girl's crusade in post-apocalyptic America bears sticking with. Ice Cream's brother is dying and she will not let that happen while there are rumours of a cure - even if it means going to war to get it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 640 Date: June 2014
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0701186425

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Longlisted for the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction 2015

My name be Ice Cream Fifteen Star and this be the tale of how I bring the cure to all the Nighted States, save every poory children, short for life. Is how a city die for selfish love, and rise from this same smallness. Be how the new America begin, in wars against all hope - a country with no power in a world that hate its life. So been the faith I sworn, and it ain't evils in no world nor cruelties in no red hell can change the vally heart of Ice Cream Star.

Ice Cream Fifteen Star begins her tale by telling us that her brother be Driver Eighteen Star and her ghost-brother Mo-Jacques Five Star died when she was only six. She still cries for him, her 'brother dead of posies little'.

Posies. An echo of ring-a-ring of roses, a pocket full of…

And yes, in this future desolation posies is indeed a plague, a certain death that comes upon Ice Cream Star's people young. Few live to beyond the 18 years of her brother. Their lives are hard, scavenge-fed, hard-scrabble existences in the ruins of Massa – which they know to be part of the Nighted States, but not entirely sure what part. They've hear stories. But all the stories are from a long time ago. Tales of Europe are myths to pacify the little ones.

The Sengles – Ice Cream's people – are a tarry night sort. Black. Skinny. Long.

They are a wandering sort. In this post-apocalyptic world that much is probably true of most people.

They're not the only people around. There's the Lowells, who live in an old mill. There's Christings who live peaceable lives and hold to old rules and rituals. And there are the Nat Mass Armies who live in the woods and are sworn enemies to the Sengle children: although one or two Sengle children might cross that boundary in the dark secret of the night.

Then there are the Roo – furry faced creatures, twice the size of the Sengle and wearing grey-green dapple suits, and with strange white skin.

At the beginning of the story, Driver Eighteen Star is showing the first signs of the WAKS that will kill him. He is the leader of the Sengle people and a good one.

And besides, he's her brother, so when Ice Cream chances upon the story that there is a cure for this dread disease, and a person, living and breathing and by his own claim over 30 years old, then how should she not follow? How easily will she believe the story?

Then there is the proof of a kind, and then there is an attack, which removes any choice and so begins the war of Ice Cream Star. A war that will take her and her people south to the fabled Washington and Quantico, into politics and religion and the blurred boundaries between the two.

And she will learn what people will do to survive. And what some others will do to try to make sure that the one person they love most will have a chance of survival.

I haven't read any of Newman's previous work, but a quick squint around the search engines suggest that this is probably her darkest to date. There are no laugh out loud lines here. A wry smile is all she will allow to break the tension of the unremitting horror of the country she has created.

This isn't zombie horror. It's not blood-guts-ad-gore horror. Although to be fair as the war progresses there is a reasonable amount of carnage. She tends not to dwell over-much on those scenes, however. The real horror is in the sheer grinding acceptance of what this country has become. And somehow, when you look around the world of the early 21st century and see what people are doing to each other, when you listen to the arguments that so-called civilised countries put forward to justify their actions, it doesn't really take a great deal of imagination to see how this could all, somehow, come to pass.

From my quick skip around the back-catalogue it seems that Newman does not see simply telling a gripping tale a big enough challenge. She likes to make life a little more difficult for herself.

In her first book (The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done) it was a fragmented structure, then she moved on to trying to explain the criminal mind (Cake) before moving on to a few non-fiction offerings. She teaches creative writing and is on record as being afraid that she has no room to grow as a writer... this might explain the challenge she set herself in Ice Cream Star for the whole of the story – all 75 chapters and six hundred and some-odd large-format pages – are told in her voice.

For that voice go back to the beginning of this review. Or pick up a copy and open it at random.

His face be grit in shame how he always looking when I cry. And now I feel the heavy night, the indoor silence like a darkness.

Then terror rise, and I go run. Come out on the steps, and dodge through littles coming up. Be this careful movement coming up, and be the blackish sky tremendous overhead, its dull uncolour moon.

She mangles language beautifully.

It's a hard-wrought beauty though. Make no mistake, this is a big, heavy book and to begin with the going is equally heavy. If I'm honest, if I hadn't committed to review it, I'm not sure I would have persevered. So I am doubly thankful to the publishers and (for my copy). If it intrigues you, don't be put off and don't try to over-analyse what the unmade words, the mangle-words, the patois and foreign-English-French contractions and misappropriations; don't worry about the sort-of present tense that is often no real tense at all – or at least none that I was taught at school.

The sense builds. It builds because the story makes sense of some of the words.

It builds because however wayward the words and the constructions, Newman is fully consistent in their use.

Or maybe I'm doing her too much justice and this is actually a genuine lingua-franca spoken in some African country and she has merely researched it and learned it and reproduced it. To be honest, that would be no less a feat.

All of that however would be mere pretension if it wasn't used to back up a story worth the telling. Ice Cream relentlessly draws you into her world and makes you care, if not about her then about her brother, and the littles and all the other children, even those between whom there is no love lost.

It is a story with a cast of thousands, but probably less than a dozen that you'll meet closely enough to identify – and not all of those will you love or trust.

It is a story of love and war. It is a story of love during war.

But mostly it is a story about war itself. War. And wars. In this hundred anniversary year of the start of the Great War, there are unsubtle echoes of the trenches. But these trenches are laced around with landmines, and there are stories of nuclears as the final, no-one here gets out alive, solution. A reminiscence takes us to the truly dark heart of Africa, where the colonial powers and their local cohorts still thrash it out. The cold war lurks behind somewhere – or maybe also somewhere in the future.

It is, she seems to be telling us, everywhere.

If it weren't so enthralling on a personal level – if you read it more closely while actually reading it – it would be a deeply depressing book. But, somehow, Newman does pull it back from that brink, keeps it personal, and – she tells us – there will always be someone who will believe that it IS possible to change the world. And so long as there is one person who believes, there will be one more, and more than one, who will help.

Not for the faint-hearted, but ultimately, recommended.

If you enjoy this, you'll probably be equally challenged and equally rewarded by the much shorter A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

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