A general Content Warning for spoilers, discussion of aversion therapy, discussion of homophobia and harm, and me having negative opinions about a book you might love.
Have you ever seen Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’? The 1985 dystopian film about an office clerk who falls obsessively in love while sorting out a tragic system error? Take yourself to the scene where Lowry’s strapped in a chair. He’s about to be interrogated (and probably die) when Robert De Niro and his swat team of rogue plumbers swing in to save the day. Don’t question it. Lowry flies off to have bizarre, mid-air intercourse with Jill. And whoever isn’t dead settles down in the country.
Only it was aaall a dream. In reality, Lowry’s still in the chair. He’s internalised himself from fear, and almost certainly pooped himself.
Now hold those images while we discuss this book’s use of aversion therapy as character motivation. I’ve a suspicion Cook neither experienced the process himself, nor engaged with someone who has, as being placed in aversion therapy is the only reason Protagonist One grows a backbone. Fin doesn’t fight his parents before being sent to Re-Souled, after all. Not really. He remains mostly complicit until the second he steps foot in that place, and suddenly becomes loud, proud, and sassy.
Aversion therapy does not give you room for these things. You are made to feel ashamed of that pride. It’s often an uncertain amount of weeks if not months of living Fantine’s ‘I Dreamed A Dream’: you learn to make yourself small, quiet, and agreeable so the nightmare ends quicker.
My suspicion only grew as Rye, Poppy, June, and their parents rocked up to stage a prison break—accompanied by Fin’s parents, The Whittles, who committed him to Re-Souled in the first place. This was the De Niro moment. They storm the stage in colourful drag, perform a medley of five or six (?) queer anthems, and Rye gives his big speech about his man being perfect.
The Jill moment is them storming out together and heading home for their happily ever after.
The chair moment was me closing the book, stunned, wondering if this was so unbelievable—so removed from reality—that it could actually do harm. I had to wonder how effectively this conveyed aversion therapy as a nightmare. How could I defend this fever dream from conservative ridicule? How do I tell survivors it isn’t making a joke of their trauma?
At least I didn’t poop.
Personally, I feel Cook could have skipped the aversion therapy arch and ended fifty pages sooner. It was a truly wonderful story up until Re-Souled. I also feel he could have relied less on pop culture references, which often felt inserted post-script while scattering the narrative into incompatible decades and locations. Some references gave the overall impression of a book written for consumption, rather than for pleasure or survival. And some scenes were so heavy with references that they read like rewrites of chapters from other novels.
Lastly, I got a sense the story started in America and ended in Australia, but I suspect that was just a woops. Overall, I’d call it a pleasurable read as long as you skip the Re-Souled arch.