Gwenda Bond reviews Karen Healey
Let it never be said that authors from Australia and New Zealand don’t have a huge influence on American YA. From Margo Lanagan to Justine Larbalestier to Garth Nix to Elizabeth Knox, they are widely represented on best-of lists and have earned legions of devoted fans on the other side of the world. Karen Healey, whose first two books were set in her native New Zealand, is a relative newcomer to that list, but she’s already established a reputation for novels that are as thoughtful as they are enjoyable. Now, with her third YA novel When We Wake, she makes two departures from her previous work – the first from fantasy to science fiction, and the second from New Zealand to a future Australia. Heroine Tegan Oglietti is a 16-year-old girl who’s not particularly unusual. We’re introduced to her through her own vibrant, engaging voice. She loves the Beatles and freerunning, is newly in love and, if not as inherently political as her longtime friend turned new boyfriend, enough of a believer to attend a protest with him – oh, and the year’s 2027. Except that’s the day Tegan dies, cut down by a stray sniper bullet meant for a dignitary, not for a normal teenage girl, but for someone important, as it were.
But Tegan does not stay dead forever. When she’s revived, it’s 100 hundred years later, and the mere fact of her waking has made her the exact opposite of the typical teenage girl – in every way except on the inside, of course, where that’s precisely what she still is: a teenage girl who finds out she was cryogenically frozen and is the first person considered a successful revival. She’s at the center of a military project, Operation New Beginning, and she believes in the good in that, in helping bring back soldiers, because her father was one. So she’s not just left to deal with the circumstances of her awakening, but to grieve for a past she never got to experience. Everyone she knew and loved is dead. The world has undergone vast changes. And Tegan’s new celebrity status puts her in the crosshairs of religious fundamentalists who believe she’s a soulless abomination, and of people who believe Australia’s zero tolerance immigration policy should be enforced for ‘‘revivals’’ like Tegan as well. In a time of overpopulation and catastrophic environmental changes, there’s no room for the past’s dead to come back to life, they argue.
Healey here does something rare in YA science fiction (which we are thankfully beginning to see more of lately). This is not a dystopia, though the world has its problems, but it’s not a utopia either. What it is instead of those perhaps simpler and definitely more extreme options is a convincing, compelling future. From computer tech to the global political environment to changes in music, Healey has meticulously constructed a world that feels like it could happen. And yet it is different enough from our own to be a constantly entrancing ‘‘what if.’’ What if this happens? What if that does? What if eating meat was not only expensive but socially disapproved of? What if tiny mobile video cameras made the paparazzi even more omnipresent?
Tegan’s allies in this new world are not as powerful as her keepers, and it becomes quickly clear that the military has a bunker’s worth of dark secrets and a serious agenda where she’s concerned. But, to keep her happy, she’s allowed to live with the doctor who revived her, Marie (who she very much likes). Healey shows off her effortlessly integrated talent for building worlds that feel truly diverse, in a way that’s never forced. At school, Tegan makes fast friends with budding journalist Bethari and her ex, pharmaceutical whiz Joph, and meets a dreamy boy on a third world talent visa, Abdi. Some of the other kids taunt and torment her, but Tegan is not willing to play their games. And, as she learns more, she may not be a willing participant in those of the military’s or the radicals’ either. All this results in several high stakes showdowns, related to us in Tegan’s unmistakable voice, the last of which isn’t resolved. But, that’s okay, because there’s another volume on the way. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what Healey’s political, intelligent teens are going to do in When We Wake’s follow-up installment.