The Mountains of Instead

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

The Straightforward Pathway Had Been Lost (Review: Stray by Monica Hesse)

Monica Hesse
Hot Key Books 2013

In Lona’s world Foster Care is a thing of the past. Seen as an archaic social construct that often put vulnerable children at risk, it has been replaced by a curious process known only as the Julian Path.  Pathers like Lona spend 23 hours per day plugged into a virtual simulation of the life of Julian – a perfectly average, happy child whose parents Life Captured his every moment in order to create a childhood of pleasant memories for children left without parents of their own. Lona has been on the Path since babyhood, experiencing life primarily as Julian.  Even in the hour a day devoted to calisthenics, Pathers talk in a curious Path speak, referring to themselves as We and Us. Never as Me or I. They share everything, every memory, every feeling that Julian experiences is their reality.  At eighteen, they are transferred to a different facility and this is what happens to Pather Fenn, two years before Lona.  Fenn and Lona are almost friends even as they are almost each other, different people with the same identity and she feels a loss when he leaves, a loss that hasn't quite left her the day that his face appears inserted into her Path, instructing her to run…

Lona is a unique character in that she has a duel personality.  She is herself, but she’s also Julian. She has memories as Lona but more of Julian.  When she ends up Off Path her character develops in a way that is utterly fascinating.  She becomes herself but that self is constantly informed by her childhood – or Julian’s childhood, rather.  As her story progresses, a strong, stubborn young woman appears and her interactions with those around her demonstrate a kind heart somewhat stifled by the naivety of someone who has never truly lived in the real world.  She is mature yet oddly childlike and her story is utterly original.

Fenn, by the time readers meet him properly has a personality that has developed somewhat more than Lona’s.  Yet not in an entirely good way.  The kind, gentle boy that Lona knew has grown into a somewhat embittered young man who is trying and not always succeeding  to make his way in a world that he doesn't entirely understand.  With Fenn, comes Genevieve who is again extremely well drawn.  She dislikes Lona on sight yet is never unlikable herself, despite her snide comments and insecurities.  In many ways, she’s the most interesting character of all having never been On Path and yet (unlike, as we see, the majority of society) never viewing Pathers as anything other than individuals.  There are other characters that flit in and out and one in particular who is totally compelling but to talk about them would give too much away suffice to say that they complete an already curious line up.

The story line of Stray could so easily have become a convoluted mess what with the Path and the non-Path and the implications of both but it is testament to Monica Hesse’s mad skills that it is never hard to follow.  She skilfully riffs on the idea of identity and its genesis and what it means to share your memories with many – in a way Stray is an incredibly clever analysis of a hive mind.  Particularly accomplished is the Path speak with its curious use of collective pronouns is often creepy but when Lona and Fenn use it in private conversations it is also hauntingly beautiful and the comfort that it engenders in all Pathers is inherent to the story line.

Stray is, unbelievably, the debut novel of Monica Hesse and is thus far one of the strongest titles of 2013.  It’s not always easy to find a truly original premise these days and while Stray touches on similar issues to, say, The Truman Show (and, as the press release mentions Being John Malkovich) it is never anything other that its own exceptional story.   It’s sets both Hesse and relatively new imprint Hot Key apart as ones to watch and is highly recommended by The Mountains of Instead.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird. Stray is available now from places where books are sold. Thank you to the publisher for sending us this title to review.
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