Tim Lott’s Fearless

h1 August 2nd, 2007 by jules

{Note: I’m having fun with covers here and showing you all three that I have seen for the novel. The first one is the cover for the upcoming Candlewick release — unless they change covers at publication. And the next two are from Walker Books in the UK — I believe it was published in June of this year in the UK — the last one being the paperback cover. But don’t quote me on that} . . .

I tried really hard to like British author/journalist Tim Lott’s first book for young readers, a dystopian novel called Fearless (to be released this Fall by Candlewick), even hanging on ’til the very end. Lott was given the Whitbread First Novel Award for his adult novel White City Blue in 1999; his novel Rumours of a Hurricane was short-listed for the Whitbread Novel Award; and he “has carved out a niche for himself as one {of} British literature’s foremost social realists” (says the British Council Arts group). Fearless is about a young girl who, we learn in the novel’s chilling prologue (“The Night They Came”), is snatched one night by a man in uniform from a woman she believes to be her mother — but not until after she gives the young girl three objects: a picture of the girl’s grandmother and grandfather; an old silver watch that she said once belonged to the girl’s father; and a golden locket that encases a photograph of her mother on the day of her wedding. She is whisked away into the darkness with only these three things in her possession.

“‘You’re in trouble again, Little Fearless,’ said Beauty, idly inspecting her perfect fingernails, their cuticles like pink crescent moons, as the girls walked slowly out of the Control Block,” begins the first chapter. The girls, labelled either “juvies” or “mindcrips,” have been imprisoned, their names taken and their identities stripped from them altogether. Addressed only by a letter or number by their superiors, they bestow nicknames upon one another as friends (hence, Little Fearless and Beauty. There is also Tattle, Stench, Bellyache, Stargazer, etc.). Little Fearless talks up the return of their families, trying to comfort the girls, and eventually she plans her escape — with her goal being to find any adult who will listen and tell them that the so-called City Community Faith School (indeed, that’s how the Controller of the school markets it, complete with a camouflaging of the school’s exterior) is a sham, that it’s really a dark prison in which they live harshly and are, to a certain extent, brainwashed.

The city is run by the elusive Ten Corporations, its City Boss playing on everyone’s fear of terrorism to keep things under control. It is under his power that the “Cityzens” give up their children to these schools, thinking that their children are being re-trained in Opportunity and Hope. Of course, trying to convince someone about the school’s true intentions is more difficult than Little Fearless had anticipated (“Why wouldn’t anybody believe her? It was because she was a child and they were grown-ups, and grown-ups only ever believed other grown ups”) — that is, once she finally makes it off school grounds, with the help of one girl named Stench, arguably the most complex and fascinating character in the book.

And there I will stop, lest I give away too many spoilers.

Whew. There’s a lot here that Lott is trying to do. As mentioned, it’s a dystopian, Orwellian novel. There are the Fahrenheit-esque “vidscreens,” which are, for all intents and purposes, huge television screens (“whole families were gathered around enormous vidscreens watching commercials, and occasionally, between the commercials, what looked like games in which people won money, or incomprehensible sports, or half-naked singers writhing and undulating to some unheard music”), which, as Little Fearless describes them, are like “pantomime{s} on the edge of a battlefield. It distracts you from seeing what’s important right there in front of your eyes.” And there are the obvious anti-utopian themes of oppressive social and mind control (“When everyone has freedom, no one has freedom,” says the Controller); the stripping of a sense of individuality under a totalitarian government (“Only in forgetting is there peace”); and the fear and apathy that are married to the mindless obedience to that authority. Just as in Brave New World, the Controller of the school believes that only by stripping oneself of things that are central to our identity (such as, Little Fearless’ need to storytell to keep the girls’ hope alive) will one be truly happy and society will stay appropriately stratified (indeed, at the Institute, the girls are organized into a hierarchical system with three tiers).

And Lott also seems to be relying heavily here on fairy tale tropes and forms in order to set the tone, establish mood, create his characters. And sometimes it worked for me. But a lot of times it didn’t. I found myself simply not caring too much about Little Fearless’ plight, which is problematic, her being the main character. I found more depth and more dimensions in Stench, a secondary character (so named, because she handles the trash at the sinister school, and Little Fearless must convince the vulnerable girl to let her sneak off school grounds in the vile trash trucks). As a reader, I was also supposed to be moved, I’m sure, by the plight of Stargazer, a tiny girl who admires Little Fearless’ courage and has her own transformation from fearful to brave at the book’s close, but I thought she was handled with such a lack of subtlety that I found most of her words and actions to be entirely too heavy-handed. And there are touches of this elsewhere in the book — the melodramatic clutching of tiny locks of hair; “forlorn and pathetic” rag dolls as symbolism for the imprisoned children; a perfume bottle filled with the tears of the children in the Institute (12,703 tears, to be precise); hearing “the sound of a human heart breaking”; “secret refrains” being whispered by human hearts; etc. And I would characterize the book’s final paragraph in a similar manner — a bit too clichéd. This reviewer addressed the book’s close as well. I’ll direct you to those comments about what I agree was the need for another revision on the book’s curtain call.

But the book has its moments. And the book’s major themes — not being able to escape your own story and the need for such stories to keep one alive — will resonate with intermediate-aged and teen readers. Lott also gives us some graceful, thought-provoking passages (even one from Stargazer) when it comes to issues of compassion and finding truth for oneself, as captured by the three stone angels representing Truth, Courage, and Compassion in Angel Square (which Little Fearless gets to see occasionally when she escapes the school); hence that British cover of the hardback version of the title that you see up there. Little Fearless wonders, “{w}as truth what the City Boss said it was? Or was it what the Church said it was? Or was it what the Controller said it was? Or was it something held deep inside you, like a secret?” And Stargazer’s words to the Controller at the book’s close: “You should pray to the stars, to the universe, for our selves and for our lives, brief and imperfect as they are. Give thanks for the astonishing miracle that there is something rather than nothing. That we exist at all in the endless void.” There are moments like this that I enjoyed.

And there’s a dose of political commentary here as well that will resonate with many readers. In speaking of Oroborous, who is known and feared as a terrorist, the Controller tells Little Fearless:

” . . . the people need a bogeyman to keep them in order and afraid. So even now they pretend that Oroborous continues to roam free, blowing up people and buildings, the police always getting closer and closer, but never quite catching him. As long as Oroborous is at large, the City is in grave danger, and they can do anything . . . to try to ensure his capture. But of course, the moment they actually catch him, the period of fear will be over, and they will have to start relaxing all the rules again. And they love the rules — because they love power.”

But, overall, I was disappointed with some of the more overdone, banal passages that were “too precious,” as the review I referred to above put it well. To be perfectly blunt, I found myself twitchy in irritation whenever Stargazer spoke (with the one exception I give above), and I’m not trying to be funny or snarky. I was surprised to be responding this way (based on what I’ve read about Lott’s writing and the fact that I really do want to read his books for adults).

Has anyone else read this and perhaps want to argue with me? Of course, so many kidlitosphere folks seem to be out and about on vacations and/or conferences, but if anyone anywhere wants to talk Fearless, I’m up for it.

* * * * * * *

The copy I read was an uncorrected proof. Quoted excerpts are subject to change.

12 comments to “Tim Lott’s Fearless

  1. Quick thoughts:

    I liked the concept more than the execution, especially by the end. I saw all of it coming. I’m being brief and tactful here.

    I like the first cover the best. Not only does it fit the story the best, but it is the most sell-friendly. The third is a little freaky for kids and it’s close to some other others and the second is too holy for the mainstream.

  2. My take’s very similar to yours — in particular, I thought it was a mistake to make everything so easy for Little Fearless on a scene by scene basis. It takes away any real sense of menace, and, for all that the setting is a great _setting_, it’s not a well-developed one. I never smelled that trash. That’s lazy writing.

    Anyway. I’ll prolly post on it soon, since I’m going to essay on it for my first packet this semester.

  3. I applaud all of you for being able to finish it. I couldn’t get past the 2nd chapter.

    But I do kind of like that third cover.

  4. I see your point, LW, about the angel cover, but, man, do I love that one. It’s my favorite. I don’t think I like the flower cover ’cause of what was going on when the flower bloomed — more not-so-subtle symbolism in his writing.

    Thanks for the feedback, all. Little Willow, I also saw coming what was supposed to be The Big Reveal. I don’t think authors — or screenwriters, for that matter — need to feel this pressure to always give us a totally shocking Sixth Sense kind of ending (which too many of them feel that they have to do anymore, and it’s getting on my nerves), but I wanted any element of surprise in that ending. And there was none for me.

    And, Gwenda, excellent point about the lack of menace/how easy it all was for Little Fearless.

  5. I really wish I’d read some of his adult books, because I keep wondering whether these issues stem from “writing down” to the younger readership or from unfamiliarity with the conventions of the genres he’s mining or something else entirely.

  6. Gwenda, yes! So easy!

    :: SPOILERS ::
    Every time she snuck out in the trash can, I thought of Annie. I couldn’t help it. I’m far too familiar with that show to picture anything else.

    The angel cover makes me think of the first gate of The Oracle in The NeverEnding Story.

    I like surprise and things that make sense – that once they say, “So-and-so was lying,” or “The butler did it,” or, “I’m your sister,” that all of the little pieces FIT together and everything adds up properly.

  7. I had a bit of trouble with the fairy-tale writing. I felt like it wasn’t consistent. Some things were dystopian/adventure story, but that was mixed with fairy tale symbolism, and it was hard to tell how literal any of it was supposed to be. Maybe younger kids would be able to just go with the flow, but I found it a bit jarring.

    I’ll write more on my site when I get a bit more caught up. I still thought that it was interesting – I’m a sucker for dystopian stories of all sorts.

  8. Thanks for the feedback, Jen!

  9. I think that the angels on the second cover do not suit the book. Sure, there are the three angels in the city square, but ….. Why are there only two angels on this particular cover?
    Also, I think that you have been putting this book down a little too harshly. There were (as you have stated) some moments where Little Fearless’s journey seemed altogether, far to easy, but the moral of the story was portratyed in a really strong way (well, I at least got the message!) I really liked this book. The reason that I picked it up off the shelf the first time was because I was drawn to the symbolism of the cover. I thought that it would be a meaningful story. (This was the third cover) I like most of your criticisums, and agree with you in most aspects.

  10. i had to read this book for a solo talk, i also chose it from the shelf because i found the (3rd) cover very attractive.
    It took me a while to really get into this book but towards the end, i couldn’t put it down. overall, I though it was a very intriguing and touching book, and I thourghly enjoyed it.

  11. I loved this book. If you ask me the 3rd cover is better than all, the reason would be that it explains what she is. The i found to be sad, intresting and very powerful.

  12. I WANT TO READ IT ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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