Content Note: cissexism, animal abuse, colonialism
Todd Hewitt is the last boy in Prentisstown, a settlement town on another planet. When the human settlers arrived, they waged a war against the original inhabitants of the planet and they struck back with a weaponized virus that killed all women and girls, and gave the men and animals telepathy. Todd grew up knowing nothing but the Noise of the men and animals around him, and as the youngest settler is just about to reach adulthood. But one day he is out and about with his dog Manchee and finds a quiet spot in the Noise. Disturbed, he returns home where his guardians Ben and Cillian turn his entire life upside down, send him away and hint at the fact that Todd doesn’t know the whole story. From one moment to the next, Todd finds himself on the run, but how can you run when everyone can hear your thoughts?
I bought The Knife of Never Letting Go many years ago and never got around to reading it. Now with a movie adaptation coming out, I decided to give it a go, although by now I had started to see the premise of the book very critically. Given how much I loved A Monster Calls, I didn’t want to give up on it prematurely, but maybe I should have. The book really didn’t work for me.
Let’s talk about the premise for a second: the idea that a virus would affect men and women differently is okay, if you make sure to point out that this doesn’t hold true for all women and all men, that not everybody can fit neatly into those two categories, that there are more than these two categories, and that social factors are also at play. Like, we see that the Corona virus is deadlier for men than women. We don’t know exactly why that is on a biological level – is it hormones, chromosomes, or what have you – but we do know that part of the problem is that men put off going to doctors longer, so they get treatment later. And we also know that it doesn’t mean that all men die from the virus and all women survive it. And we know that there are trans and inter and non-binary people, and all of them may be affected differently by the virus, but studies usually conveniently forget that they exist, so we have no data there. All of this is to say: to pretend that there is a virus that would affect all women one way and all men another way without thinking of trans, inter and non-binary people is pure cissexism – and that’s what we get here (even if it later turns out that the women didn’t, in fact, all die).
I was hoping that I could accept this and move on with the book despite that, but unfortunately the rest of the book didn’t convince me, either. Starting with the fact that animals also have telepathy and either all animals got it, regardless of their sex (which would be weird) or all female animals are gone (which would be even weirder), because otherwise Todd would have to know what the silent spot means.
Additionally, I couldn’t forgive the book for how it treats Manchee. At first, Todd is cruel to him. Then Todd finally falls in love with his dog, and then he has to abandon Manchee who is promptly killed. It’s definitely a tear-jerker of a moment, I absolutely sobbed, but I hated the book for it.
And on top of that, Todd ends up straight-up murdering one of the Natives of the planet, a Spackle in a harrowing scene that becomes a pivotal character development moment for him, but doesn’t really have any consequences for Todd beyond his own sense of guilt, and doesn’t once consider the Spackle as a person whose death probably affects his people. It is possible that the entire colonialism and the human-Spackle relationship (e.g. the human genocide of the Spackle) is adressed in the subsequent books, but I will not be reading them to find out.
It is a pity. I saw a lot of potential in Viola as a character, and I liked how the book plays with the typography to represent the Noise. But that just isn’t enough to actually make me like the book.