An unsettling and often unflinching Young Adult novel, Lauren DeStefano’s debut is set in a dystopian near-future, a world in which women die at the age of twenty and men at twenty-five. The cause? Wide-scale generic experimentation which at first seemed to be a boon for the human race: ‘Flawed natural children ceased to be conceived in favour of this new technology,’ we’re told, but this generation of perfectly engineered embryos came of age with a flaw of their own. While diseases like cancer have been eliminated, the children of the first ‘practically immortal’ generation barely live into early adulthood.
Taking place fifty years after this demographic disaster, a real strength of Wither is the manner in which DeStefano presents the tragedy’s consequences for society. In an effort to stave off extinction, young girls are routinely abducted and forced into polygamous marriages – essentially forced breeding arrangements. Rough, disreputable ‘Gatherers’ make their living from such human trafficking while wealthy households stake their futures on these ‘experiments’, the children farmed by these unconscionable means.
DeStefano’s heroine is the sixteen year-old Rhine Ellery, a girl taken by the Gatherers and sold off to a rich young man named Linden who’s current wife is already dying. It is a world of wealth and privilege, sure, and Linden may be kinder to Rhine than other men are to their child-brides, but it is still a life of enforced sexual servitude. No surprise so that the capable, strong-willed Rhine is desperate to escape, find her twin brother, and go home.
With the assistance of her ‘sister-wives’, along with Gabriel, a trusted servant to whom she is growing dangerously close to, Rhine sets about orchestrating her flight from Linden’s home. But breaking out of her gilded, largely holographic cage is just the beginning, for Rhine also has to contend with the roving Gatherers, factious brutes who are only happy to sell escapees into prostitution or simply just to kill them. There’s plenty of excitement in Wither, deftly orchestrated by DeStefano, and the novel’s twists, turns, and intricacies should more than entertain the target readership. The author has an impressive grasp on the voice of her protagonist too, and throughout the novel Rhine grows in an engaging and realistic fashion.
What’s more, it’s nice to see the publishers of teen fiction begin to turn away from the business of churning out pseudo-Gothic Twilight imitations and instead drift back towards SF storylines. That said, the implicit anti-science stance of Wither is a little disappointing. Genetic engineering is demonised consistently as the root cause of humanity’s downfall, which is fair enough, however scientific inquiry is also negatively depicted in the struggle to correct the sins of generations past.
The eccentric father of Rhine’s new husband is a case in point. The nominal villain of the piece, this cruel old man is bent on finding a cure for the mysterious ailment which is coming ever closer to taking his son. He is the typical Doctor Frankenstein figure, collecting corpses and testing out his theories on human flesh, though with every human being having become a ‘ticking genetic time bomb’ one can almost understand his point. While it would have been nice to have seen a more positive spin – scientist as hero, if you will – this is a minor gripe which never fatally compromises an otherwise compelling read.