Imagine a country where everyone is the same; where individuality is slowly being eradicated, and all interaction with the outside world is blocked by a vast electrified dome.
Sara Grant’s dystopian debut novel Dark Parties is set in our future, in a country which was sealed off from the rest of humanity in 2051 by a dome known as the Protectosphere, which simultaneously marks out the State’s boundaries and imprisons its people. Society is growing increasingly similar in this enclosed space, and individuality is frowned upon by the State, which is a shadowy and amorphous entity inspiring Orwellian fear.
Through the course of the novel it emerges that the State is technologically failing and apparently weakening, yet increasing numbers of people are going missing to the extent that they never existed at all…
Neva, Grant’s 16-year-old heroine, keeps a secret list of ‘The Missing’ whom she has become progressively interested in since her grandmother’s disappearance. Together with her closest friends, she yearns to weaken the iron grip of the State over their lives and foster social unrest on the basis of whispered tales of an alternative history, and with a vague inkling that life and freedom may exist outside the borders of their enclosed homeland. However, once something is discovered you cannot ‘un-know’ it, and as a consequence of seeking hidden information Neva finds herself facing decisions which turn life as she knows it upside-down.
In the midst of these challenges, Neva is faced with the age-old trials of teenage life: growing uncertainties; changing relationships; as well as falling for her best friend’s new boyfriend. But who can she trust? And is the shadowy State all it seems?
The book places strong emphasis on the importance of individuality with ‘the norm’ as an abstract foe, as there are many points in the story where Neva’s life would have been much simpler and worked out easily if she had only conformed.
In an interesting twist to the classical notion of totalitarian control, Grant uses society and not the State as the adversary. The State is a nebulous figure which takes a back role to society itself, where citizens reinforce the standardised norms and modes of behaviour on each other in a self-perpetuating cycle. This creates a feeling of uncertainty as to who is actually in control; and whilst the actual State appears weak, readers discover that the vast network of people keeping it alive make it far stronger and pervasive, as everyone has something they would do anything to protect.
The novel is set in a brief snapshot of time spanning a few months at most, which results in a somewhat interesting depiction of its characters. They are well developed, yet you discover very little about them other than what happens in the short timeframe of the story. The only exception to this is Neva’s grandmother, Ruth, who we get to know through Neva’s memories as a very individualistic person, a character trait emphasised by the way she is depicted.
Due partly to its snapshot-style, Dark Parties raises more questions than it answers, mainly regarding the state of the country, its background and the stories behind some of the characters; Neva’s father, for example, has several twists to his character which lack background to them making him a rather confusing creation. In one sense these elements make the novel somewhat superficial; however, as the story is told through the eyes of a 16-year-old one could argue that it is a realistic portrayal of how Neva would perceive the world around her.
The ending comes about rather suddenly, and whilst it gives an apt conclusion to the story, it would have benefitted from a less abrupt finish as in my view this rushed last impression lets the book down. Nevertheless, Dark Parties is a gripping story and a promising debut novel which sets Sarah Grant up as an author to keep an eye on.