Wither opens with a lot of fancy O–o circle stuff. I can’t say if there’s any greater purpose or if it’s just that the author found it pretty, but it really is pretty. It’s also very busy. If you look closely at the cover, you’ll see the caged bird is connected to the wedding band…but her upper half is also circled and that’s connected to a tiny empty circle and doesn’t seem to link into the rest of it at all.
The acknowledgments page is all about the support she got as a writer. There is nary a reference to research, but she does say she had multiple readers who gave a lot of feedback on the details.
Then there’s the TS Eliot quote: this is the way the world ends:
I’m not sure if it’s that I’ve just seen the quote so many times, but I actually find the first half stronger. This is how the world ends has an intriguing openness to what it could mean.
Wither doesn’t seem much like it’s with a whimper, either. The premise is that everyone dies young (women at twenty and men at twenty-five, in defiance of biology which says women should be outliving men). But they’re certainly not going out quietly. The plot kicks off with our main character kidnapped and forced into a marriage as part of a bid to keep the species going, and people are desperately looking for a cure.
If you started the book with just this is the way the world ends it would be infinitely creepier, inviting you to read and find out.
Well. Let’s see what’s actually written.
I wait. They keep us in the dark for so long that we lose sense of our eyelids. We sleep huddled together like rats, staring out, and dream of our bodies swaying.
This is a very good opening. You know something terrible is going on, and they’re helpless before it.
I know when one of the girls reaches a wall. She begins to pound and scream—there’s metal in the sound—but none of us help her. We’ve gone too long without speaking, and all we do is bury ourselves more into the dark.
Also terribly creepy – but wait.
Why didn’t anyone else do this? Is the girl a new arrival, or did it take her this long to even try to find a wall? Why have they gone without speaking – why didn’t they say anything to each other, and why can’t they now?
The feel of this is that the narrator has just given up, but the details don’t quite add up. She seems to have started off just as beaten down and defeated as she is now.
Then we’re told they’re let out into the light.
We stumble when they let us out; we’ve forgotten how to use our legs. How long has it been—days? Hours?
…hours? And you’re reduced to baby rats? Look, I get that it sucks to be imprisoned in the dark, but you seem to be in the same physical state as people who just watched a movie. You should also know that if it’s been days you’d be pretty thirsty by now.
Our narrator explains she knows what’s going on. Girls are kidnapped all the time, and it’s been like this for a very long time.
I know girls disappear, but any number of things could come after that. Will I become a murdered reject? Sold into prostitution? These things have happened. There’s only one other option. I could become a bride. I’ve seen them on television, reluctant yet beautiful teenage brides, on the arm of a wealthy man who is approaching the lethal age of twenty-five.
The other girls never make it to the television screen.
And we’re back to real horror. Except… they’re not murdered for any particular reason, like being witnesses, it’s just if they’re not good enough? What’s the point of that?
Also, there’s something that bothers me about the “reluctant yet beautiful”. How do those things conflict, for one? And there’s the sense almost that the second half somehow mitigates it – they’re reluctant, but on the other hand, they’re beautiful.
It brings to mind almost pretty girls getting dragged out onto television for their own good, especially since it’s only “reluctant” and not something like “sad”, let alone “dead-eyed” or any other adjective I’d actually expect under the circumstances.
Girls who don’t pass their inspection are shipped to a brothel in the scarlet districts. Some we have found murdered on the sides of roads, rotting, staring into the searing sun because the Gatherers couldn’t be bothered to deal with them.
Why? It can’t be that they’re scared of being identified, or the girls in the brothels could do so. And how many girls do brothels need that they’re kidnapping girls constantly, and how desperately if they’re willing to keep all of them imprisoned and deal with the fallout every time a relative or friend finds out? Yes, it would be horrible to be in this situation, but why would this situation ever happen?
The girls are taken as young as thirteen, when their bodies are mature enough to bear children, and the virus claims every female of our generation by twenty.
Okay, good info, but what do the two halves of that sentence have to do with each other? If it was “as young as thirteen and no older than eighteen, because…” it’d make sense, but this just looks like the author wanted to stick a fact in there regardless of it not following at all.
The girls are checked over to see how healthy they are. Our narrator says she doesn’t want to stand out, but there’s no explanation for why – if they left the girls who didn’t pass, then of course you wouldn’t want to stand out and hope they let you go. But apparently they kill you if you’re not good enough. So, would she rather have that happen than the other two options? And if so, why not kick up a fuss or try to convince them she’s not healthy to get killed?
A man paces before the line of us. He allows us to be prodded by the men in gray coats who examine us. He seems thoughtful and pleased.
This, it would seem, is the prospective husband.
I really can see someone preferring the death option. It’s the pleased that does it. It’s not just he doesn’t care, he’s actually happy with seeing a string of miserable kidnapped girls. How much worse could someone like that be if you’re trapped with him?
She glances at him and that gets his attention.
Stupid! I should never have looked up. The strange color of my eyes is the first thing anyone ever notices.
…really, book? Really?
She and two others are picked, and the rest are taken back into the truck.
“Go,” they say, and we oblige.
She hasn’t explained what she wants out of this. Does she want to die or does she want to be picked? She did her best not to get picked a moment ago, but now she goes along meekly as if she doesn’t want to give the guy any reason to change his mind. Both things would make sense, but for some reason we’re not given either.
I guess the one thing that could explain it is that she doesn’t know what she wants, so she’s leaving it up to fate. But that doesn’t fit her behavior at all, because she says her goal is to not stand out and not get picked, she just won’t explain why.
I’m the last to get into the limousine. There’s a tinted glass window that separates us from the driver. Just before someone shuts the door, I hear something inside the van where the remaining girls were herded.
It’s the first of what I know will be a dozen more gunshots.
Well, it still doesn’t make sense. But I will grant that it’s intriguingly horrible.
That’s not the end of the chapter. She wakes up in a strange bed, throws up, and a servant materializes to explain she’s sick because of the sleep gas.
“It comes out through the vents in the limo,” he says. “It’s so you won’t know where you’re going.”
Yep, this is definitely a horrible, horrible setting.
“One of the other girls,” the boy says, as he sprays white foam onto the spot where I vomited, “she almost threw herself out the bedroom window, she was so dis-oriented. The window’s locked, of course. Shatterproof.” Despite the awful things he’s saying, his voice is low, possibly even sympathetic.
…he can’t be that sympathetic if he assumes the only reason one of them would jump out a window is she was disoriented.
Her window is also locked, but the view is pretty, not like her home view that’s full of grime.
Someone screams. The boy keeps cleaning. Our narrator seems to be the easiest Stockholm victim yet, because she’s already explaining why he’s actually a nice guy and offering to help him clean.
Maybe he was also brought here against his will. I haven’t heard of teenage boys disappearing, but up until fifty years ago, when the virus was discovered, girls were also safe.
Yes, and then they weren’t and you heard about it. Also, if they were so desperate for servants they needed to kidnap people for it, they could always use all those teenage girls.
He gives her lunch with the promise it won’t knock her out. Not that this means anything.
“That other girl—the one who tried to throw herself out the window—what happened to her?” I ask. I don’t dare ask about the woman screaming down the hall. I don’t want to know about her.
“She’s calmed down some.”
“And the other girl?”
“She woke up this morning. I think the House Governor took her to tour the gardens.”
This is weird. She seems to somehow know that the woman is someone other than the other two wives. They haven’t been described yet, so I guess they could both be little kids, but even then it’s hard to believe she could be certain they weren’t the ones who screamed.
Anyway, the mention of “governor” confirms her guess that he’s a wealthy bastard. Not sure why she needed it confirmed when she’s waking up in a fancy room with a servant and she already knew that only wealthy people buy brides. She repeats about the Gatherers (always with the capital letters in these books…) who steal women for these guys.
The merciful ones will sell the rejects into prostitution, but the ones I encountered herded them into the van and shot them all.
So, it seems she considers prostitution better than death. Which makes her desire not to get picked weird – she didn’t know if the other girls would be killed or sold, and it’s not clear why she’d feel being sold into prostitution to one guy was much worse than being sold into prostitution in general.
It turns out she’s already been there two days, so the gas must have been strong or else they kept drugging her.
With her food is some tea, the same stuff she used to drink at home.
It’s all I can do not to burst into tears. The boy must sense that the full impact of what has happened is reaching me. He must sense that I’m on the verge of doing something dramatic like crying or trying to fling myself out the window like that other girl, because he’s already moving for the door.
I’m really not seeing why she thinks he’s so sympathetic.
But, she tells us, she does not start crying. Instead she’s filled with rage and covers her face with a pillow to scream.
So, what do we have so far? We have a very gritty and depressing setting, but so far not one that hangs together well – why are girls so disposable? How do people get away doing this? So far, I’m not even clear on if this is all legal.
The marriage thing seems to be, at the least, an open secret. Those “reluctant yet beautiful” girls who show up on television are considered to all be the product of kidnapping. Maybe powerful people can keep anyone from asking, or maybe the police are corrupt, or maybe the girls are coerced somehow to say they’re willing.
The brothel thing, though – that’s really pushing it . It’s certainly possible to sell girls into slavery, but it requires people who no one’s looking for and, ideally, who can’t communicate what you did. Apparently, everyone knows that this happens, yet no one goes to the brothels to ask if the girls were kidnapped? And okay, maybe a brothel could get away as hidden so no one but people who are fine with the idea ever know about it, but there’s a limit to how many of those you can have in an area, and from the sounds of it, huge numbers of girls are getting abducted all the time. The more there are, the more likely the police would start finding them – plus, there’s only so many men, and not all of them would be okay with this, so there’s only so many potential clients before you run into one of them going back and telling the police. So it seems like this is apparently legal, and in that case, why murder them all the time?
In a culture where girls are worthless, where parents wouldn’t want them back if they weren’t virgins, I could see this working even if the initial kidnapping was illegal. But there can’t be many girls if the primary reason for kidnapping them is desperation for a kid, not because you want an on-hand prostitute.
Then there’s our character, or lack of one. She’s instantly cowed by her kidnappers, to the point she just huddles in the dark. Then she’s let out and decides to passively resist and try not to get picked. Yet she doesn’t think rape is a fate worse than death – she says it’s merciful to sell the girls into prostitution, and she doesn’t say that ending up married is worse than ending up in a brothel. It’s not clear what she wanted to happen – did she think the brothel would be better, and she assumed that was what would happen to the others? And she doesn’t make any attempt to actually disqualify herself from getting picked, or struggle in the hopes she’ll be considered too annoying and switched for a different one.
The only sense of her character I get is in the last little section after she wakes up – she latches onto the boy, says she can tell he feels sympathetic, and starts making up a story that he’s just like her. She doesn’t seem to be thinking much of what’s happening to the others – I think the most disturbing is that, especially in this situation, she’s hearing someone scream and she doesn’t want to know why. There’s the sense she just doesn’t have anything left for people who actually are in the same situation, only people similar, because she doesn’t want to think about what’s actually going on. But then we end with her saying she feels rage that covers her sorrow, and nothing about her being afraid.
It’s realistic enough, but it doesn’t give me much sense of who she is because it’s just how people would act. And it strikes me as weird that we end with her raging, but she’s still politely smothering her screams – does she not want them to know how upset she is because she doesn’t want to give them that? Because I can’t see why she’d be considerate for their ears.
Also, things feel too clean. So far, she and another girl have thrown up, with the other girl now dead. But that’s it, and not even in a particularly messy way – she doesn’t throw up in her sleep or anything that’d make her less than pretty, and no one throws up while they’re trapped in the truck. Or pees, or anything. That’s part of why the book’s attempt to make it seem like it’s not clear how long the girls were in the truck fails, they can’t have been there long and still been so presentable. There’s no mess from her spending two days aslee either. There’s one approved type of mess, and it’s this. She doesn’t even seem to suffer from any lingering effects of being drugged – she wakes up, she vomits, she’s fine and ready to eat.