Dystopia. One of the most popular genres of fiction across all formats. Novels, television shows, movies, plays, comic books, and more. This is one of the most enduring genres, with one of the oldest being Thomas More’s Utopia. Despite the name, this is a satirical work of fiction, a utopia as seen only by its inhabitants. Every year, more and more works of fiction embrace this genre. So why is it so popular? Why do audiences enjoy seeing awful worlds? It is the opposite of escapism. However, dystopian fiction is concerned with messages of hope. No matter how bad things get, there are always people willing to work and fight to fix the world.
The Seclusion is Jacqui Castle’s debut novel. An already accomplished freelance writer, Castle avoids many of the pitfalls fallen into by first-time novelists. Many authors think their first novel has to be a magnum opus, a great work that tells an epic story. Most writers think they need a thousand pages to tell that story. The Seclusion is only a few hundred and, as a result, never feels like chapters could have been cut. Castle keeps up an engaging momentum while also striking a balance where the novel never feels like a rocket speeding towards the stars. Things move, but readers are never left behind. We spend enough time with the main character, her thoughts, and her world to understand why she does what she does and why we should care.
The Seclusion takes place in the year 2090. Patricia, our main character, is a little over twenty years old and a member of the third generation living in this dystopia. Long before the events of the novel, the United States of America walled itself off from the world. Literal, enormous walls were erected along the entirety of the Canadian and Mexican borders. The residents of the United States are fed a constant stream of propaganda meant to convince them that the rest of the world has dissolved into chaos. Crime has been eliminated. Racism, sexism, and discrimination has been completely forgotten. Climate change is an accepted threat and every form of technology seems designed to aid the environment. In exchange for this peace and security, liberty is gone. Lives are controlled in every way by the Board, the governing body. Your education, your career, your entertainment, even your worldview are carefully programmed. Within this prison, Americans are free to live as they see fit. But history has been erased. There was never a United States of America before the Board.
The Seclusion is told from the first-person point-of-view of Patricia, or Patch. When we meet her, Patch is not a hero or a resistance fighter or any one of the other types of characters we usually follow in dystopian fiction. Patch is a true believer. She recites mantras to herself during the day feels a sense of joy when traitors are caught and shipped off to re-education camps. Even when she starts to see behind the veil, Patch resists and almost reports to the government instead of trying to discover the real American history. Yet, even within this world, Patch is something of an anomaly. Where everyone seems to be obsessed with cleanliness, Patch enjoys her work as an environmental scientist, taking every opportunity to work in the outdoors. At her home she even keeps a garden, an unusual and expensive hobby in this world. Her best friend, Rexx, is the opposite. Curious and willing to stretch the rules, he is the one who sets them off. But Rexx is not the hero of the story. Patch is.
Castle’s plot for The Seclusion should be familiar to any reader of dystopian fiction. That familiarity is not a criticism, because the actual events are what makes this book stand out from others of its kind. For the first few chapters, we follow Patch’s life as she fully embraces the dystopia. Then, one day while working in the field with Rexx, they discover a van. An old model, to them, filled with artifacts of a pre-seclusion America. Maps showing a massively more populous country where entire states are now empty. Dozens of banned books, including a copy of Les Misérables, which Patch keeps for herself against her better judgement. On the map, they discover a symbol, infinity, and learn from Patch’s father that a resistance movement used to be located in Oregon. People who knew what lay outside the walls and understood the utopia was a lie. Patch, the true believer, lets her curiosity takes over after her own mother turns in her father to the government. With Rexx, they travel through a forgotten country to try and discover the truth about the rest of the world.
The Seclusion is actually a refreshing dystopia. A weird sentiment to have when this fictional United States has turned extremely isolationist and freedom is a forgotten myth. But this not a violent dystopia for most citizens. All forms of discrimination have been eliminated from the public consciousness. Despite different skin colors, sexual orientation, and genders everyone is more or less equal. This is not a dystopia based on religion or nationalism. The rulers only wanted control, and they found the best way to maintain control was to make sure everyone under their rule was content. This is not The Handmaid’s Tale. The Seclusion may have turned the entire United States into a prison, but it is a pleasant prison. All you have to do to live in it is submit to a thorough brainwashing and give up all control over your own life. The idea is almost appealing. Almost.
Castle’s debut novel is both timely and note. Unlike something like Christina Dalcher’s Vox, it does not address the very real extremism fermenting in our country. Instead, Castle takes a look at another insidious force, one that we all talk about and criticize every day. This force is not motivated by anything extremists are normally motivated by. I will not spoil the secret behind Castle’s dystopia, but the name of the governing body gives it away. The Board. Dystopias are not escapism, they are an early warning system. The Seclusion’s dystopia may not be the most dire vision into the future, but it will always be relevant. A pleasant prison is still a prison.
The Seclusion can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 5 days
Next on the List: Finding Baba Yaga: A Short Novel in Verse, by Jane Yolen