The Collective by Lindsey Whitlock

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The Collective by Lindsey Whitlock

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Category: Teens
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A distinctive book I certainly wish well, but I would have hoped for more clarity as to the setting and the author's ultimate intent.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: August 2019
Publisher: Pushkin Children's Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781782692171

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Illinois Territory, Collective Homesteads of America. It's certainly an unusual place. Some people live in sunken houses, buried into hillsides to disguise how large their property is at times of austerity, among other reasons. Others are called Foresters, for they live and work in trees – forever playing and resting in trees as children, but farming in amongst them and living between them too. These two sides hate each other – so perhaps this is less of an unusual place than at first sight. Our drama kicks off when the small area the Foresters live in is placed under compulsory purchase – the residents are given a pitiful amount to clear out, before they get manfully cleared out. It's probably the Hills that are behind this, what's more. Our hero, Elwyn, has just left the trees for the Hills, to live with an uncle and learn their ways – he's just of age to decide things for himself, and he has decided to see how the other half lives. This has, of course, opened himself up to no end of prejudicial judgement. But what's this – as soon as he reaches the Hills he sees a third way of living, in a lovely colonial-style mansion, where everything sparkles and shines with crystalline light. What does it mean that he feels destiny-bound to this even posher, newer and more hopeful life?

Looking back at the above even I can see that it's a woolly amalgam of plot build-up and discussion of the book's geographical situation. And I have to say I think that's down to the book. Not that the book is woolly itself – it reads along at a right good pace, vividly and cogently giving us its plot. But the fact remains the whole setting and background to the novel is very, very ill-defined, and you're forever joined on your journey across the pages by the feeling of displacement. With talk of wars that don't seem to ring true to names of wars in my knowledge, this reads like an alternative history USA, set in a world of much illiteracy and natural medicines. But it's not that historical – beyond names like Elwyn and other even more Victorian efforts, there is an established mail service, and the people coming to pin down the clearance area do so in what are clearly lorries.

And that diaphanousness is also there when you try to think what the real core of the book is. Is it a metaphor for modern society – the Hills and Foresters Trump followers and Mexicans, say? You seek a hard-and-fast equivalent in vain, though. And while there is a lot to be said for books that don't mollycoddle the reader and make everything as clear as daylight, I did find the way so much here was too hard to pin down worked against it for me.

So I was left with the narrative, which is almost a parallel one, of Elwyn trying to make it in amongst the greener grass over the societal fence, while the girl he left behind is one of many trying to stick it out and protest the land-grab. I think the book just about juggles the two strands well – if there were times I wanted to stick with one before it switched to the other, the sharing of our interests was OK, and the book could have belaboured the links between the two a lot more than it did. There's also a female draw for our lead both sides of the fence, and that could have been clunky, too, but the novel doesn't labour that aspect of Elwyn's new life.

In the end I found the plot to definitely be an interesting one – the book almost a fantasy quest where the quest is for something completely intangible. The book features young people ultimately seeking what gives them self-respect, whether that be the status denied them by birth or a home uncorrupted by modern society. You can see then that the book resolves into having universal themes, has a distinct flavour to it, and is ever readable – I just regretted the fact I needed to know more of the where, when and why while I was approaching those themes.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

You might enjoy a very different but equally rural quest to be had with The Dog Runner by Bren MacDibble.

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