Monday, 16 September 2013

book review: vivian versus the apocalypse by katie coyle

Vivian Versus the Apocalypse by Katie Coyle
Genre: Contemporary(ish) YA
Rating: 9/10
Vivian Apple never believed in the Church of America - unlike her fanatical parents. As for the so-called impending 'Rapture', she knew she'd believe that when she saw it. But then Vivian wakes one day to a New World, and all that's left of her parents are two empty spaces. The Believers have been taken, it seems. And for those left behind, the world is a desolate and eerie place. All Vivian has now are her memories and her volatile friend Harp.

Faced with society on the brink of collapse, Vivian and Harp embark on a journey across America, in search of any family they have left, and determined to expose the truth about the Rapture. Three thousand miles through floods, fog and heat waves, Harp and Vivian and a boy with the bluest eyes and the kindest heart are driving on to their future.

But will this be a coming-of-age road trip with no return?

It's not hard to see why Katie Coyle was the winner of the 2012 Young Writers Prize - Vivian Versus the Apocalypse is smart and funny and full of complex characters who are at times frustrating but are always sympathetic. In a relatively small space of time (the book's only 280 pages), Coyle manages to fully establish and then deconstruct a fictional, yet not totally foreign, America and to develop a cast of realistically flawed characters in a really engaging coming-of-age story that isn't afraid of politics or the ugly-side of human nature.

I very quickly became very invested in all three of the central characters - I was instantly drawn to Vivian's timidity and her desire to be 'good' and to do the expected thing. The story is all the more powerful because neither Vivian, Harp or Peter are particularly brave or rebellious, they're just trying to get by and find answers for themselves. One of the joys of roadtrip stories is the gradual development of relationships and self-awareness that comes from being confined in a small space and the on-the-road intervals here served did this really well as well as providing nice moments of quiet and normality in a world that was otherwise highly volatile. As well as the friendships between Vivian, Harp and Peter, this book also tapped into one of my favourite tropes - the discovery of parental fallibility. I've read a couple of novels this year which deal with that theme (most notably Tell the Wolves I'm Home) and Vivian didn't disappoint on that front. I have to admit that I was a bit anxious about where everything was going after the 'twist' at the end of Part 2 but I was so pleasantly surprised by the way in which Coyle refused to shy away from the brutality of Vivian's coming to terms with her parents' absence.

As much as I loved the characters in Vivian though, I think the thing that impressed me the most was just how sharp the social commentary was. All good satire and sci-fi has its roots in contemporary society, it only works if its extremes bear some relation to the audience's reality, the recent trend in dystopian fiction has created a particular space for authors to do this but I'm not sure if I've read any that manage this so deftly as Coyle. Vivian is very definitely a member of the Young Adult genre, catered towards a teenage audience but at times it felt very Margaret Atwood-esque and I'd definitely recommend this as a primer to dystopia of the Atwood variety. Vivian is full of both explicit and more subtle commentary on twenty-first century America, addressing the nature of religion, corporate capitalism, the opportunism of political movements and, most interestingly to me, the nature of youth politics. While the book is left-leaning in its critique of these phenomena, there is nuance in the ways that they are portrayed and some of the most interesting pieces of commentary and character development are concerned with explaining why people allow themselves to be exploited and about the power of concepts such as community and security. Most impressive of all however, is how Coyle manages to explore these big, complex ideas without dragging down the pace of the plot or, more importantly, without becoming bitter and completely cynical. While Vivian's world is hugely problematic and there seem to be so few people she can turn to, there is a levity to the narrative and there is always a slither of hope.

A definite contender for my favourite book of the year, I can't recommend Vivian Versus the Apocalypse highly enough!

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