CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 8 . . . . December 9, 2005
Karen Krossing's novel, Pure, is easy to liken to Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake for young adults, but that comparison diminishes some of the unique touches in Krossing's treatment. The books certainly share some overlay of subject, but Pure concentrates on the problems of attempting to live an unremarkable life as a teenager in a society altered by experimentation with human DNA.
Pure opens with a familiar dystopian premise. Dawn is a genetically protected settlement, secure from The Beyond, where roam "skidge" creatures — humans whose genetics have been experimentally manipulated. The citizens of Dawn are suspicious of difference and uncertain where to place their trust. As the novel opens, 15-year-old Lenni is discovering an unrealized depth to her art: she is able to see the soul inside the people she draws — everyone except herself. Lenni's gift soon brings her to the attention of the Purity Council, a frighteningly powerful genetic policing unit, and she is charged with being skidge. From here the story gains momentum quickly as Lenni is forced to re-evaluate her relationships, her beliefs, and her sense of identity. The novel raises many important themes, some of which are made explicit in an uncomfortable scene in Lenni's creative thinking course. Her teacher asks the class whether an artist should be free to paint any subject matter and quickly moves to questioning whether the suppression of any form of creative activity is wrong. Given the context of the novel, readers will understand these questions through the ethics of genetic experimentation, but sensitive readers may extend their thinking to artistic representation as a whole; censorship and thought control are important threads in the novel, suggesting that the act of reading is, itself, a form of resistance to political control. This central scene will feel familiar to most teen readers and will set them up well for the key themes of the plot.
Unfortunately, the story has some problems with pacing and development. The action happens so quickly — in just over three weeks, as Lenni reflects close to the end of the book — that the characters have little time to process it; we as readers get very little reflection on the larger implications of the events. For instance, when Lenni's boyfriend, Jonah, learns about Lenni's suspected genetic impurity, he abruptly breaks off the relationship because his career ambitions forbid him to associate with skidge. The breakup happens so quickly that Lenni's emotional response feels superficial, underdeveloped. Similarly, Lenni sets off for The Beyond with only a single friend and few resources, as if she were going on a great adventure when, in fact, she is a fugitive whose parents are in custody. The scene's optimistic tone is strangely at odds with the situation.
Characterization is also a problem. I didn't grow to like Lenni, didn't feel moved to care about her: too often she felt like an emblem rather than a fully developed character. Other characters also felt like predictable types. Rae, for instance, the natural misfit who works in the cafeteria, is an Earth Mother who helps skidge people reach The Beyond. Duke, "a thin twenty-something man with a long ponytail," is an activist and organizer for a genetic rights campaign. Redge, the skidge boy created by the obviously named Dr. Frank, interacts best with his computer, Dawg, until Lenni shows him a little kindness. Rylant, the severe Purity agent, collapses when she realizes the truth of Lenni's gifts. For readers who enjoy a fast-moving plot with little nuance, these characters will be satisfactory; but given the complexity of the themes, I wanted richer, more developed actors.
Another problem lies with the scope of the work: the author packs in so many significant ideas that the whole becomes murky and indistinct. To get a sense of the range, consider that we discover Lenni has the power to heal by channeling energy — a problematic talent in a society that has turned away from both science and faith. She has a typically fractious relationship with her distant father and hysterical mother; she has a boyfriend but is otherwise isolated. She also communicates psychically with a spiritual guardian she calls Mur, whose presence she recognizes but does not understand. Meanwhile, global resources are becoming scarce, Earth's climate is changing, health care systems are overloaded, and the residents of The Beyond are breaching Dawn's protective walls. A class division between the pure and the skidge is forming, leading to anger and violence. Skidge people are being sterilized to protect the gene pool, and officers of the Purity Council can arrest any citizen on even faint suspicions — yet the gene pool isn't as pure as it seems. Such a diversity of issues cannot be fully realized in just over two hundred pages, and so the novel leaves many tantalizing hints of story untouched. Pure raises themes that deserve attention and tackles some important emerging issues; for this reason, it is worth a look. However, the weaknesses in its presentation prevent the novel from fully realizing its goals — and that's too bad because there is a lot to like about this book.
Leslie Vermeer is a doctoral candidate at the University of Alberta and an instructor at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, AB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.