In the tradition of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Jean Hegland's fiction debut is a tale of two young women coping in the aftermath of the apocalypse. As anarchy and disease ravage the country, Eva and Nell, orphaned sisters living in the remote redwood forests of northern California, must learn to survive in an age of fear, superstition, and hunger, and to lay the foundations for the rebirth of civilization.
Hegland's powerfully imagined first novel will make readers thankful for telephones and CD players while it underscores the vulnerability of lives dependent on technology. The tale is set in the near future: electricity has failed, mail delivery has stopped and looting and violence have destroyed civil order. In Northern California, 32 miles from the closest town, two orphaned teenage sisters ration a dwindling supply of tea bags and infested cornmeal. They remember their mother's warnings about the nearby forest, but as the crisis deepens, bears and wild pigs start to seem less dangerous than humans. From the first page, the sense of crisis and the lucid, honest voice of the 17-year-old narrator pull the reader in, and the fight for survival adds an urgent edge to her coming-of-age story. Flashbacks smartly create a portrait of the lost family: an iconoclastic father, artistic mother and two independent daughters. The plot draws readers along at the same time that the details and vivid writing encourage rereading. Eating a hot dog starts with "the pillowy give of the bun," and the winter rains are "great silver needles stitching the dull sky to the sodden earth." If sometimes the lyricism goes a little too far, this is still a truly admirable addition to a genre defined by the very high standards of George Orwell's 1984 and Russell Hoban's Ridley Walker. (July)