On a windswept island far to the north live a community of women in isolation. They must protect themselves from the enemy--men--and try to atone for the sins of the Old People, the ones who brought Tribulation on the world. Keller is a novice tracker, one of the girls who will guard the island and be exempt from breeding. She is not allowed to make friends with her fellow novices; nor is she allowed to fall into one of the many Pitfalls, like Decoration and gazing upon one's Reflection. Keller and the other novices find a cache of goods from the Before Time--magazines, high heels, clothing--and suddenly the rules that hold their tenuous society together are being broken.
There is an epigraph at the beginning of Nomansland, a quotation from John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. It describes a rumoured society to the north-east of Labrador (where The Chysalids takes place) of strong women who keep their men in cages and then eat them. I remember reading the passage last year and thinking what a terrible place this post-nuclear world would be, one of isolated communities, monstrous people, and fear. Lesley Hauge has taken this handful of sentences by one of the best dystopian writers and used it as a spring-board to create Nomansland. I think this is rather inspired.
Foundland, as the women call their home, is an orderly, agrarian society. It is without religion--or should I say, without a religion we would recognise, one with a patriarchal god and women's originals sin and so on. It's hardly surprising the Bible is rejected in a community solely of women. But Foundland has its own beliefs and ideas of sinning, ones that keep Keller and her friends tightly controlled. They are skilled horsewomen and archers, but even the exhaustive routine they are kept to can't prevent what comes naturally to the girls: alliances, jealousies and curiosity.
It's fascinating to see how the objects from the Before Time affect these girls. They struggle to interpret the pictures and make-up and clothes, to discern what life was like before Tribulation. But even more fascinating is the thoughts the objects stir up about why the Tribulation occurred, and their own frustrating existence. There are some brilliant passages that feature Laing, the ringleader of their group and the one hungriest to make sense of everything.
Nomansland delivers an interesting account of a all-female world under absolute rule. There are plenty of nods to The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, such as in the ritualistic punishments. My only disappointments are that it wasn't a little scarier, and that the promise of action that the bows and arrows indicate never comes. There will be a sequel to Nomansland, so maybe we'll see some ass-kicking then!
Nomansland is available this July from Henry Holt Books for Young Readers.