The pull quote on the back of my copy of “The Declaration” describes it as “sharing the visionary quality of the Handmaid’s Tale”. This is a strong claim for a Young Adult novel by a new author, but I think it can perhaps be justified. The book lacks the elegant, sparse prose of The Handmaid’s Tale or Atwood’s firm roots in literary tradition, but The Declaration does share that sense of a dystopian future all-too-horrifyingly believable and clearly rooted in the trends and attitudes of our own time.
The Declaration is set in 2140 and we see its world through the eyes and pen of Anna, a teenaged ‘Surplus’ nearly ready to go out into the world and earn her keep. The story unfolds through Anna’s journal entries and the day to day experiences of her life leaving the reader to piece together a picture of the society from the glimpses we get from her life and education.
These tell us that some 100 years before the start of the story, a drug called Longevity was discovered which cured all known diseases through a process of cell renewal and was then discovered to halt the aging process. Initially, frightened, the government banned it but eventually gave in and licensed it for public use, with one caveat. To preserve the world’s scarce resources, everyone who wants to take Longevity must also take The Declaration: agreeing never to have children. Illegal children are labelled as Surpluses, rounded up by Catchers, and sent to Surplus Halls where they are trained to be useful for Legal people and brainwashed into believing that they are lucky to be allowed to do so.
Unlike the nameless protagonist of the Handmaid’s Tale, Anna has no memories of her past life to tempt her to doubt the official story she is given. Instead, into her ordered life comes Peter, new to the life of a Surplus, close to Anna’s own age, and he immediately sets about challenging everything that Anna has been taught. She isn’t a Surplus, he tells her, there is a place for her, and her parents did and do love her. Initially, she finds the ideas he gives her frightening and rejects them, but gradually the seeds he plants take root and she learns to fight against all she has been taught.
The book has some structural flaws. Some elements of the story are not dealt with until the sequel and really the two books form a single narrative which it is difficult to read separately. The dramatic denouement seems too neatly and pleasantly resolved after what we are shown of the ruthlessness of the Authorities.
Despite this, however, the book is a gripping read, thanks mainly to the disturbing plausibility of Malley’s portrayal of a deathless society. As in the Handmaid’s Tale, the frightening thing is how little exaggeration and projection is required to get from here to there and that sense of genuine warning makes the book well worth reading.