State of Grace is Hilary Badger’s first Young Adult novel, and it is a doozy. If you put the Biblical concept of the Garden of Eden, Lord of the Flies, and 1984 in a blender, added teenagers with really heavy emotional baggage and a liberal sprinkling of futuristic pharmaceuticals, and turned it on, the result would be a fascinating examination of personal choice and free will (and a terrible smoothie).
State of Grace begins in media res: Wren lives with ninety-nine other teenagers in an apparent paradise, seven days away from the highly anticipated and mysterious Completion Night. They wear loose-fitting sungarb and play naked in a lagoon, sleeping with whomever they want (though never the same person two nights in a row, as per the Books of Dot, and the sex is hinted at rather than explicitly described), with no responsibilities other than daily harvesting of newfruit. Newfruit is a spherical, silver-skinned stonefruit which has an intoxicating aroma but must never be eaten — instead, inhabitants of Dot’s lagoon tip the fruit into a metal chute in the ground, where Dot uses it for her divine purposes. The past three hundred fifty-eight days are all anyone can remember, and as far as they’re concerned, Dot created them as fully-formed teenagers for the express purpose of tending her sacred fruit. In exchange, they live among all manner of animals, eat delicious fruits and vegetables, and sleep in wooden huts. All they have to do is live as “dotly” as possible, honoring the tenets and strictures listed in the Books of Dot, which emphasize acceptance of others, childlike innocence, and total reliance on Dot for protection and guidance. Negative language is forbidden, so Wren uses words like “prenormal” and “prelight” rather than “weird” or “night.” It sounds like a cult, or some sort of virtual reality simulation, and what’s really going on is even stranger and creepier than what the reader might expect.
Naturally, the idyllic façade begins to slip, and for Wren this means a bizarre blurring of reality: she has auditory and visual hallucinations and periodic, overwhelming anxiety (though she doesn’t have the vocabulary to describe any of what she experiences in those terms). Her dreams begin to include things that couldn’t possibly exist, because the Books of Dot don’t mention creatures named “Mom” or things called “parks” or “beaches.” Blaze, a quiet boy who keeps to himself, forces Wren to consider whether there may be more to life than what Dot will allow them to see. Wren is a passive person, preferring to let things happen and hope for the best, hope that Dot has a plan, and that eventually that plan will make sense to Dot’s creations. It’s a difficult narrative choice, especially since Blaze is more action-driven and therefore the more logical narrator, but Badger commits to Wren, and for the most part I found this to be successful. I liked watching Wren process the changing world around her, and her reluctance to accept new realities was portrayed in a convincing and sympathetic way. One of the aspects that I liked the least about State of Grace was the over-stated emphasis on the innocence of the characters, which sometimes bordered on unbelievable stupidity. There are valid reasons for Wren to not know words for things which are outside her scope of experience, but when she doesn’t know — not an issue of not remembering, but of not knowing — the correct word to describe the pupil of a person’s eye, that was too much for me to accept.
As State of Grace opens, the characters are a little simplistic and one-dimensional, but the progression of the plot proves that this is part of Badger’s agenda. Without spoiling anything for readers, all I will say is that the growing complexity of Wren’s situation is matched by an equal depth of personal motivation in herself and the people around her. You may not like a lot of what they do, but Badger makes it plain that you aren’t supposed to. Again, it’s her commitment to displaying the wrongness of their actions which I enjoy. Biblical allegory does come into play here, and there are many discussions of whether reliance on a creator-figure is necessary at the same time that some characters engage in dangerous behavior as a direct result of their fanatical faith in Dot. A spectrum of beliefs is portrayed, and in the end, Wren makes her own decision as to what she holds dear and needs to believe in order to feel peace. This was an especially nice touch on Badger’s part because it would have been easy for her to make blanket statements for or against organized religion, and I didn’t get the sense that she was intruding into the narrative to push any particular views onto the reader.
Badger takes her time in revealing pertinent facts of Wren’s background and the larger world around the lagoon, focusing instead on lush, careful descriptions of the lagoon itself until I could picture it as clearly as if I were looking at a photo of a tropical resort. The residential huts, orchards of newfruit, swarms of purple butterflies, and the gazebo where one sends thoughts to Dot during the day and dances to dottracks at night: these are super-saturated with sensory details to the point of unreality, a clever move on Badger’s part. The physical appearances of Wren’s companions are less important than their behavior, which falls in line with Dot’s gentle reminders to accept and love all people. I don’t have a clear mental image of Gil or Fern’s faces, but I can say with certainty that Gil makes my skin crawl and Fern starts out as a perfect best friend.
If as much attention had been paid to the climax and cliffhanger ending of State of Grace, I would have been thrilled. The majority of the plot is rather languid, and as a result, the sudden shift to explosions, firefights, and frantic flight from authority figures is jarring and feels as though it belongs to a different book entirely. Wren’s passivity and reluctance to take charge of her life was especially annoying at this point of the novel. In addition, those action scenes are so scattershot that I had to read the last four chapters twice, assuming that I had accidentally turned a few pages at once and had missed important details as a result. Sadly, this was not the case.
I sincerely hope Badger continues on with a series, because there’s a lot about this book which I enjoyed, and I see a lot of potential both for Badger as a writer and for Wren as a character. State of Grace examines the benefits and pitfalls of Utopian society in interesting ways, and I would recommend it as a good novel for teenagers who like the concepts of classic novels like Lord of the Flies or 1984 but would prefer a more modern approach.