The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Comfortably Numb (Review: Delirium by Lauren Oliver)

Lauren Oliver
HarperTeen/Hodder and Stoughton 2011

In Lena's world love is a four letter word – a disease; an infection of which all are cured at age eighteen. After the cure, citizens are no longer cursed with the highs and lows that love can bring. In fact, they are no longer inconvenienced by anything much as the cure destroys any intensity of feeling, allowing them to float through their lives without emotional extremes. Lena is all for this. Having had a mother who loved a little to much, despite society's repeated attempts to cure her, Lena knows the dangers of the disease and cannot wait to be cured, assigned a role in life and even a husband who she will spend a life not minding very much. Then she meets a boy, Alex, who turns her life around and her belief systems upside down.  And so begins Lauren Oliver's Delirium...

Lena is an interesting narrator. While she tows the line as far as the disease is concerned, right from the start there is an undercurrent of unrest running through her. Her memories of a mother deemed crazy and ill still haunt her and, as yet uncured, she harbours strange feelings and passions for sunrise and Romeo and Juliet – a cautionary tale that she cannot help seeing as beautiful. These feelings worry her and she at first seems to look forward to her cure but it is clear that it scares her just as much. Her reactions to Alex are always believable. She doesn't know how to interact with him, having had little interaction with the opposite sex, and the way she finds herself feeling when with him clearly terrifies her. As she slowly begins to accept him she starts, out of necessity, to see through a societal structure that she has been quietly questioning for a long time. Her character development is beautiful and her voice clear, concise and honest.

Alex is a character who seems motivated both by a sense of injustice and an overwhelming loneliness. This makes him both heartbreaking and edgy – it's a winning combination. His gentleness and patience with the often confused Lena are touching. While he clearly has envisioned a future with Lena he never pushes her, nor does he ever lie about their situation, always ensuring that she knows the consequences of choices that she may or may not make. As Lena's best friend, Hana is another interesting figure. Of the two friends, Hana is clearly the freer, braver thinker and the most likely to rebel against a system that she sees as completely corrupt. Her frustration with life is tangible, she is a girl hovering on the edge of a something more that she cannot quite see. In her own way, Hana is just as lonely as Alex.

The world that Lena, Alex and Hana live in is one of the darker dystopias around at the moment. On the surface it seems familiar: hugely regulated lives, approved music, approved films – so far, so Brave-New-1984, right? Perhaps so, but Lauren Oliver has added an important dimension to her world with her clever premise. It is clear that Oliver has thought deeply on the implications of having love removed from the group consciousness and these implications rear their heads repeatedly, yet subtly throughout Delirium. Particularly thought provoking was the affect on the parent-child relationship. As the cure cannot be administered to the under eighteens, you effectively have children who love parents who cannot love them back, who merely birth and house them as caring yet distant automatons.

While Delirium is genuinely upsetting to read in many places, Lauren Oliver manages to lighten the heavy, frightening, blandness of this world with moments of great beauty. While reading there were many sections that I read more than once, so as to savour the simple, crisp, moving way in which they were written. Certainly Delirium contains some of the best writing that I have read recently and this, combined with the careful and thoughtful world building slowly builds a story that is unputdownable and the climax is intense and utterly gut-wrenching.

I suspect that comparisons may well be drawn between Delirium and recent dystopian offering Matched (Ally Condie) and I can see why this might be the case. However, to compare these two titles is both insulting to the two hugely accomplished authors and also completely arbitrary – rather than being alike, they sit together rather beautifully as companions on the dystopian shelf. If you liked Matched then read copy Delirium now, you will love it. Hell, order it anyway – this is, I suspect, one of THE big releases of 2011 and you won't want to miss it.

Delirium is available in the UK from February 3rd 2011. Thanks to HarperTeen for allowing me to review this via NetGalley.


Tara Martin said…
What a well-thought out review. I can't wait to get my hands on Delirium!
Wonderful review - thank you so much for this.

When I read this book, I had some trouble getting my head round the parent/child relationship issue you pointed out. Wouldn't the children of a society like this grow up severely damaged psychologically, especially if they didn't have loving brothers or sisters? I found myself worrying about them all and wondering what was going on below the surface of the society, other than what we were shown. I'm looking forward to the next book.
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