Saturday, 29 March 2008

SALT Maurice Gee

SALT Maurice Gee, Puffin, 224 pages, paperback, $17.95

They took ninety men, some from their hovels, some from the ruins, and prodded them, howling, to the raised southern edge of People’s Square, where the paving stones had not yet slipped into the bog.”

It is a marvellous moment when you read the first page of a new book and realise that you are holding a classic of the future. This is the third time I’ve been asked to review Salt, the first time in New Zealand, and my third reading simply confirms that Maurice Gee has written his best fantasy novel. Salt is a stunning mix of action and ideas.

In the collapsed ruins of Belong, a former civilisation (which I like to think of as a Wellington of the future – it even has a sector called the Ceebeedee), guards use electric whips to round up forced labourers. Branded, they will be sent to the farms and workshops of the Company which destroyed their world. Young Hari watches as his defiant father, Tarl, is sentenced to the Deep Salt, a dreaded mine from which nobody returns. Rebellion seems futile against the overwhelming power of the Company and its guards. Yet Hari has a special mental power which enables him to escape the guards and flee to the wastelands.

Radiant Pearl of the Deep Blue Sea, usually called Pearl, is the daughter of one of the elite shareholding families who live in the security of the Compound, above Belong. Refusing to be handed over in an arranged marriage to the sadistic and ambitious Ottmar of Salt, Pearl is helped by her maidservant Tealeaf to escapes from Belong. Tealeaf (who has her own secrets) has developed Pearl’s special mental powers so they can both to flee to the wasteland.

When Pearl and Hari first meet in the barren wilderness, they try to kill each other but fail – their mental powers are too well matched. It is the disregarded Tealeaf who breaks the fatal impasse, by offering them both a focus for their mutual resentment. Hari and Pearl must work together. Yet Gee is far too skilful a storyteller to trot out yet another tale of two teenagers overthrowing a corrupt regime. Instead a much more sophisticated political and military battle is fought out, even as Hari enters the Deep Salt in search of his father. When he and Pearl learn the sinister truth of what Ottmar is producing from the Deep Salt, they are forced to return to Belong in an effort to avoid catastrophe. They face the battling factions in an exciting conclusion which is also cynically realistic.

As well as being a crossover fantasy, accessible to both adults and teens, Salt also presents an array of interesting and well-drawn characters in a powerful parable which can be interpreted as a sharply satirical sketch of the dehumanising effect of the market economy. Others will simply enjoy it as a fast-moving action novel. It is also Gee’s fantasy masterpiece

The language of Belong is spare and powerful. “I had to eat the scraps out of your rubbish tins,” says Hari in defiance of the tyrants, “But I pissed in your fountains.” There is also rich detail worked into the story. Tealeaf’s real name it emerges is Xantee; it tells us all we need to know about life in the Compound that Pearl would re-name her servant Tealeaf.

The dramatic conclusion of Salt leaves plenty of scope for a sequel. Readers will also want an explanation of the mystery of Tealeaf’s people, the Dwellers, who have three fingers, cat-like pupils and those special mental powers. Meanwhile we have the pleasure of reading the work of a master storyteller at the peak of his powers.

This review by Trevor Agnew first appeared in The Press, Christchurch, on 1st September 2007.

Trevor Agnew contributed 26 biographies, including that of Maurice Gee, to the recently published Continuum Encyclopaedia of Young Adult Literature (USA).

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