BOOK REVIEW: Jacqui Castle, "The Seclusion"

The world presented to us in Jacqui Castle’s The Seclusion is a strange mixture of the horror of a future fascist America by way of 1984 and Brave New World. Spelling out the general world-building might make it seem a bit familiar to readers of the dystopian genre. It’s 2090, and the country has been sealed off by the construction of walls along the northern and southern borders and held in the grip of The Board, an unelected coterie of dictators that has replaced any democratically-functioning government bodies. Everyone is tracked via implanted chip, taken from their families from ages five to eighteen to be indoctrinated, and are monitored and surveilled for the rest of their relatively short lives. Coastal states like Florida and California are largely gone, while entire swathes of the former United States are simply left uninhabitable due to environmental degradation. The Board controls all aspects of life, from how many children are permitted in a family (one per couple due to limited resources) from the entertainment on television to the food available in restaurants.
Heroine Patch and her best friend Rexx, who research and study the country’s plant life and soil conditions, have been raised in this new America and have known nothing else their entire lives. When Patch and Rexx accidentally find a veritable time capsule from the country that existed before the Walls went up, including banned books like Les Miserables, they realize that everything they’ve learned and lived is false. (Patch’s absorption by Les Mis, and the awakening power of literature, is where The Seclusion shows its debt to Brave New World, and even to Fahrenheit 451.) In short order, Patch and Rexx go on the run, encountering an unexpected band of resistance fighters in what used to be Portland, Oregon, until they realize that in order to be free, they have to escape America entirely.

Where Castle’s take on a dystopian America shines brightest, and comes across as most original, is in three areas: the emphasis on the natural landscape of a country that has destroyed and polluted itself beyond belief; the unmistakable nationalism and forced patriotism that is at the root of the new America—not the “United States,” but very purposefully “America;” and the mental effects of dictatorial reconditioning and teaching of false history that every dystopian dictatorship requires in order to keep the citizens compliant and unquestioning. The outside world is lost to war and violence, they are told, but the Board loves and protects true, patriotic Americans by constructing the walls and keeping any danger away from them. In the absence of all traces of traditionally-organized religion, the Board is the recipient of all blessings and prayers, which is reflected even in the characters’ speech patterns. The daily propaganda television broadcasts spell out the importance of loyalty and fealty to the board in terms that might ring true for people who remember television during the Iraq War: patriotism, patriotism, and more patriotism. The use of “citizen” also makes it clear that in the America of the The Seclusion, the Board is almost fetishistically concerned with who belongs, and who doesn’t.

What’s also significant about The Seclusion is its balance between the two poles of how dystopian fiction spells out liberation: the freedom of choice and the destruction of a fascist way of life. (Think Divergent, which emphasizes Tris’ capacity for free will as a solution over any kind of societal superstructure, versus The Hunger Games, which is more focused on the formation and maintenance of the Capitol’s control over the Districts.) Patch and Rexx experience personal growth and a sort of freeing of their minds from the propaganda they’ve digested their whole lives—first as a result of finding the artifacts of the old world, secondly as the freedom to fall in love with one another—to share their lives openly and honestly, which is denied everyone else. Yet Castle continually drives home the idea that individual freedom isn’t the same as liberation for everyone, and that you can’t substitute the former for the latter. Patch and Rexx could, at more than one point in the novel, abandon the ultimate goal of reaching the outside world and simply remain together, but they don’t.

That’s not to say that The Seclusion is a perfect novel, despite its admirable qualities. The relationship between Patch and Rexx feels at once cliched (can women and men be merely platonic childhood friends without falling in love? Apparently not) and at once ramped-up far too quickly, as if Castle was really eager to have them kiss already. It’s also hard to imagine a future America that has abandoned religion as a political tool—witness even recent attempts by the current federal government to privilege Christianity in the United States—so the way religion is eradicated from America like so many other hallmarks of contemporary life comes across as a bit underwritten. Similarly, it’s even more of a suspension of disbelief to read of an America that, while focused on citizenship and patriotism, is completely unaffected by racism or white supremacy. It’s similar to the problem many viewers have noted with Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, for example—the idea that under a fascist government, further attempts at control, division, and manipulation through appealing to, and weaponizing, racism simply don’t exist. The ending of The Seclusion, as well as the inevitable results of a betrayal that leaves Patch in the hands of enemy, feels incredibly rushed compared to how meticulously and slowly the world is laid out in the beginning of the novel. Yet on the whole, The Seclusion is a powerful debut, and a strong addition to the genre of young adult dystopian fiction.

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