When we first meet sixteen-year-old Binti, we are in the desert in the dead of night, and she is trying to get her transporter to start. A mathematicaWhen we first meet sixteen-year-old Binti, we are in the desert in the dead of night, and she is trying to get her transporter to start. A mathematical genius with the rare ability to harmonize, or manipulate electrical current, Binti is running away from her family to attend university, something unheard of among her rooted, insular people. Her transporter finally sputters to life and carries her, along with her few worldly possessions—among them her astrolabe, which I take it is a ubiquitous and sophisticated smartphone-like device, though far more intimately and throughly entwined with its owner, and a mysterious relic of unknown purpose and origins that she found in the desert—to the shuttle that will take her to the launch pad and on to Oomza University after a twenty-three-day ride on a "magnificent piece of living technology," a genetically modified shrimp-like fish with an exoskeleton that can withstand space. Whew!
On the very first page, and at least once every two or three pages after for the length of the entire novella, we hear about otjize, a paste made from the red clay of Binti's desert homeland, which the Himba people wear on their dark skin and thick hair. As she explains several pages later, "Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish. We even cover our bodies with it. Otjize is red land." Binti applies—or thinks of applying—otjize with anxious, compulsive frequency, a self-soothing tic that heightens her otherness among the Muslim-like, lighter-skinned Khoush people who now surround her.
You think you know where this is going: despite Binti's otherness, her Khoush peers will warm to her likable personality and shared love of and aptitude for math. Sounds like Harry Potter with some cosmetic differences, right? Wrong! Because the terrifying Meduse aliens are about to invade the ship, changing everything about the story you thought you were reading.
Sure, at times this novella felt like an outline for a more fleshed-out tale, but overall I found the story unpredictable, imaginative, and gripping. I loved the cultural details and the world building. I look forward to the sequel....more
The characters in Lydia Peelle's debut novel float through a pre–WWI fog of loss and luck, of desperate circumstances and desperate ambitions. Her lanThe characters in Lydia Peelle's debut novel float through a pre–WWI fog of loss and luck, of desperate circumstances and desperate ambitions. Her landscape, largely Southern, is also populated by numerous animals, from mice and hares to horses and mules, as one would expect from Peelle's excellent short story collection several years back, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, which dealt powerfully with human-animal interactions.
Young Charles and older Billy flit from town to town trading horses and mules, often sprucing up older and sickly animals by filing their teeth and applying shoe polish to their coats to fetch higher prices. A deal goes awry, forcing the duo to stay put for a while. The novel's present day largely follows Charles's forbidden love affair and new career acquiring mules for the British Army, while flashbacks flesh out Billy's journey from poverty-stricken Ireland to his American wanderings. None of the characters enjoys much agency; they are, each of them, subject to larger—and largely capricious—forces, rendering each tragic in some way or another by amplifying their flaws and turning their integrity against them. They are between rocks and hard places, and any joy they feel is brief and tentative, however intense. Each is rife with regret.
This sounds depressing, and in some ways it is, but Peelle is a talented and evocative writer, and I appreciated her atmosphere, her impeccable pacing, and her deft interweaving of plot and social/historical context, which at times brought to mind the thrilling techniques of Ragtime. If she doesn't quite fulfill her lofty narrative ambitions and doesn't quite inspire deep emotions for her characters, the novel still felt worth the investment of time. I will continue to follow her career with interest....more