We discovered Allegra Hyde’s novel by accident, by chance, or if you prefer by serendipity.
The reclusive author, John Fowles, wrote this amazingly frank response to a high school student who queried him in a letter about the meaning of his book The Magus.
Reality, human existence, is infinitely baffling. One gets one explanation – the Christian, the psychological, the scientific … but always it gets burnt off like summer mist and a new landscape-explanation appears. The one valid reality or principle for us lies in eleutheria – freedom. Accept that man has the possibility of a limited freedom, and if this is so, he must be responsible for his actions. To be free (which means rejecting all the gods and political creeds and the rest) leaves one no choice but to act according to reason: that is, humanely to all humans.
What about this word eleutheria we asked ourselves? While googling around the World Wide Web we stumbled upon Allegra Hyde’s website and read about her debut novel Eleutheria. How could we resist an opportunity that literally popped up on our computer? We bought the book and read it in a day and a half. What a surprising stoke of luck it was.
Not long ago we read Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh in an effort to learn more about Goa. Ghosh has lamented fiction’s failure to properly address climate change. Allegra Hyde provides one admirable attempt to address his valid concern with her very engaging novel.
The novel is about climate change but many other things as well: doom and hope; ideals, practicality and human fallibility; idealism and exploitation; how to cope with modern day problems; love; utopia; inequality; and the joy of discovery. All of this in three hundred or so pages of beautiful prose, words that make you want to read them over and over again, that stop you in your tracks, that sparkle like the sunlight on the sea off the coast of Eleuthera (Eleutheria in the novel): the island’s skinny hundred miles pinned between the indigo turmoil of the Atlantic and the turquoise calm of the Carribean.
From the very first page Hyde’s novel drew us in.
My father had a theory for why people went to the ocean in the summer, spent their savings, their vacation days, to plant themselves on a patch of sand within sight of the water. Even if they don’t know it, my father said, what they want is to be close to death. That’s what going to the ocean was, according to him: a chance to strip down and expose yourself to danger. To risk sunburn and dehydration and errant strikes of lightning, the foot-slice of seashells, sand-submerged needles. At the beach, you could wade out into waves that might pull you into a riptide or the jaws of a shark. Or even if you only dipped your toes in the water, you’d still know you were stepping into something so vast it could engulf you, swallow you whole. It’s not that people want to die, said my father, it’s just that when they go to the beach a part of them knows, deep down, that they could. So afterward, when they return to their three-hour commutes and their cubicles, they return with a secret sense of survival. They feel woken up. More alert.
Not only does Hyde draw you in with those very first paragraphs, she also jumps right to the heart of what the book is going to be about.
Really, my father’s theory didn’t mean much to me until these last eight months, the ones I’ve had to think through what happened on the island, what happened at Camp Hope. All this time I’ve had to wonder what it was we were really doing—what it was I did—and now, of course, I have hardly any time at all. Maybe I should have been thinking of my father right from the beginning. Maybe I should have thought about where I was really going when I first careened over the archipelago in a turboprop gunshot from Florida, and those islands looked to be all beach, the Bahamas scattered along the turquoise lip of the Caribbean, their coastlines sandbar-swirled, coral-dazed, the islands so low in the water they seemed poised to hold their breath. A little more sea-level rise and they’d be washed away. Already their edges were eroding, ocean swells grabbing at coastal roads, at the underbellies of beach houses not yet leveled by hurricanes. The worst of the storms had turned whole resorts to matchsticks, their swimming pools gone green from neglect, pagodas engulfed by vegetation, hibiscus blooming in marbled bathrooms, quail doves shitting on embroidered towels—another empire born and bowed—and yet when I looked down from the turboprop, pressed my face to its oval window, I felt only possibility. I felt more than alive. My whole life I’ve run away from my parents’ way of thinking; that’s what I wish people understood. Despite everything that has happened—the way everything looks—I only ever wanted to make the world better. I only ever wanted to help. You should know, too, that I recognized Eleutheria from the air. I knew the island even before the turboprop circled toward a ragged stretch of tarmac. The island bathed in the water like a fishhook: a skinny hundred miles that curved at one end, its shorelines barbed by peninsulas, baited with the green sway of sea grapes, beaches as pink and fine as spun sugar. I felt Eleutheria catch my heart—and pull.
Hyde’s novel layers four stories on top of each other. There is the coming of age of Willa Marks, the protagonist. After her parents drugged themselves to death in the rugged rural and isolated forests of New Hampshire, she was dragged to Boston’s South End by her “father’s knuckly brothers and their spray-tanned wives” to live with her two slightly older cousins, Victoria and Jeanette, the three of them having to fend for themselves.
In reality, I had a makeshift bed on my cousins’ futon. A minimum-wage job at a café called The Hole Story, which specialized in gourmet doughnut holes. And a boss who called me “Bunker Girl,” after I mentioned my experience baking hardtack in preparation for the apocalypse—a mistake I did not make again.
There are glimpses of the fascinating history of Eleuthera (Eleutheria in the novel) set aside from the basic storyline in a separate type. For example:
Call them parasites, pests, a plague on civilization. Scum to squash and smear. Call them fools for thinking there would always be more blood to suck—ships to pillage, rum to rinse their minds of cares—that they might have a fate beyond the gallows, anything but their bodies dangling, heads lollipopped on spikes. They’d be vulture-picked until their sun-bleached skulls stood only for defeat. And yet, by the hundreds, by the thousands, pirates circled the Bahamas. They flew their Jolly Rogers high. Trading cannon fire for terror, terror for ingress, they walked with sea-legged swagger, their belts clattering with pistols and the swish of human hair. They smelled like rotting seaweed. Their skin was scabbed with ink. The port at Nassau they preferred the most: its women briny-mouthed, its liquor barrels bullet-bled. But Eleutheria offered refuge.
There is the story of Camp Hope, a green utopia founded by Roy Adams whose book Living The Solution inspired Willa but whose actions ultimately disappointed.
There was, however, an abundance of information about the book’s author: Roy H. Adams. A military man, for years he had basked in the computer screen glow of command centers, in the adulation of joystick warriors, his approval one link in the kill chain that turned foreign villages to dust. In photos online, he stood in front of American flags, his hair razor cut, his square jaw set, his eyes flinty. He looked like a man who expected his steaks rare and his golf courses pesticide-drenched; a man who believed he was entitled to all that he touched. And yet, that same Adams had written, in Living the Solution, about giving up his military career, his marriage as well. Such sacrifices, he explained, were a small price to pay in the WAR against climate change, a WAR for humanity’s very SURVIVAL. We’d been losing that war. There’d been decades of environmental marches and bumper stickers, special light bulbs and bike racks, sit-ins and die-ins and speeches, NGOs and IGOs and NPDESs and panicked scientific studies—and for what? Torrential rain spurred landslides in China, smothered whole cities. Spore-laced dust storms forced mass evacuations in Australia. There were the ongoing food shortages—a drought squeezing Brazilian soy, a wheat blight hitting Russia—along with the desperation brewing on the force of that hunger. Boat people, pundits called the hundreds of thousands of refugees floating from coast to coast. Begging for the right to dock. Begging for scraps. Dying. Bodies washing up along the Bay of Bengal. On the flooded plazas of Barcelona. Americans looked on with ephemeral pity, the tragedy ever seeming elsewhere—acute or temporal—even as wildfires seared the west and toxic algae bloomed in the Great Lakes. We were moored in apathy, in the comfort of willful blindness. Even as CO2 levels ticked upward and glaciers sweated smaller and entire ecosystems expired. The average environmentalist, according to Adams, only whimpered, equivocated, begged for corporate salvation, gave into the ease of greenwashing, the capitalist diversion epitomized in reusable shopping bags: keep on spending. In America, we still had our guns, our flags, our stranglehold on exceptionalism. We still had the distraction of virtual realities, the Hollywood phantasmagoria, the pharmaceutical raft of painlessness. We still had the audacity to call climate change a problem for another time—another country—as if we weren’t already proverbial frogs, our skin sloughing off in hot water.
Wow! Take that Amitav Ghosh. Climate change personified.
Last but not least the novel is a love story between Willa Marks and Sylvia Gill, two very different women, one with the optimism of youth, one with the wisdom of age.
Well, she said, I want to know you, Willa Marks. I thought us not knowing one another would protect us both. I was wrong. And I don’t want that anymore. I want to know everything about you. I want to know how a creature as unusual and miraculous as you found her way into this city—this century.
I felt almost as if I had died and dropped into an otherworld, everything upside down: a riot roaring outside, and me, somehow, sitting on a tiled floor with Professor Sylvia Gill. She started to speak, so I kissed her again. This time she responded with lips that were pillow-soft, then urgent, her hands—those long elegant fingers—lacing up the base of my neck and into my hair. When her eyes met mine, they were wild. Her voice rasped, Not here. Out into the hallway, arms entangled, her mouth meeting mine in the doorway to her bedroom. A stack of books tumbled invisibly in the dark. Her bed: a sea of blankets, swelling around us. My trembling intensified. In the chilled air, my skin goose-bumped, muscles tense. I peeled off my damp layers. Sylvia peeled away hers. Then her body pressed close, her warmth seeping into me, and the tension in my limbs melted into a helpless want. I went limp. I was lost. She wrapped her legs around mine, bit my shoulder, my neck. Her perfume whisked up into my skull—that humid, too-sweet musk of ambergris—along with the scent of wet skin, wet hair. A tangy womanness. I buried my face in her. I was breathing her in. I was swimming in her.
There is so much to like in this novel. Maybe it was just the mood I was in when I read it but it blew me away. The Green Republicans, the Freegans, The Ten Plagues, the notion of a poem as a kind of social grenade: a tightly packed ball of emotion and human experience tossed into the populace, The Liberal Arts Girls, on and on.
Green Republicans, the faction called themselves, though pundits called them Teddies. They were bear-hunting, boot-wearing billionaires. Businessmen, really, styled in the spirit of a certain Roosevelt cousin; Conservatives in more than one sense of the word. Once marginal in the political sphere, they’d gained momentum. The Right’s embrace of climate science, after decades of denial, had left opponents speechless—Libertarian crowds pledged allegiance, swayed by the stench of authenticity—giving the Teddies easy access to voters made fearful in the face of wildfires, fracking earthquakes, a corn blight, disasters arising one after the next. Climate change had become a new bogeyman—or, rather, a bogeywoman. The terror of Mother Earth, her kamikaze revenges, made the public pliable. Religious rhetoric hustled the Bible belt into compliance: We will prepare the USA like an ark for the impending floods. We will protect the chosen. Everyone else can go to hell. The Teddies’ presidential pick, though unexpected, was not unwelcome to the old-school GOP, most of whom were willing to buy into whatever would keep them in control. “Green Business” was booming. Everyone was talking about geoengineering. Cap and trade. Smog futures. Undergirding the platform, the same old principles applied: consolidation of power, resources for the elite. A dead planet, after all, wouldn’t keep anyone in bratwurst and brandy and sixty-foot sailboats.
By scavenging with the Freegans, I’d learn to perceive society’s secret subtext: there was more than enough food to feed everyone and yet people went hungry; there was free furniture and clothing everywhere, yet people endlessly purchased new products; we wasted and wasted to keep spinning the wheels of an economy that benefited only a few.
“The Ten Plagues.” There was the resurgence of a virulent swine flu, which escalated already skyrocketing food prices. Toxic algae bloomed in Boston Harbor. Mass Mortality Events increased; one weekend, thousands of mice crawled into the streets to die; the next, ninety-three bottlenose dolphins washed up in Plymouth. Meanwhile, the tick population exploded—and with that came tens of thousands of cases of Lyme disease, which resulted in even inner-city parks being doused in chemicals. Then there was the pollen. A great veil of golden dust wafted into Boston from western Massachusetts. Ragweed and pine trees, dizzy with unprecedented CO2, sent a million-trillion microscopic invaders drifting over cars and windowsills, settling into gutters and people’s hair, rendering the whole city sneezy, red-eyed, and weepy.
Liberal Arts Girls, I labeled them in my head, putting an emphasis on girls. You do realize, said one—the tallest among them, whose name I’d later learn was Corrine—that under no circumstances could a person walk in and “join” Camp Hope. You also can’t leave, said the second tallest—Dorothy. For security reasons. We’re about to launch, said the shortest—Eisa—with a flick of her ponytail. Isn’t that thrilling? The young women who’d hung around Sylvia intimidated me at first. They had read Foucault, and could differentiate Doric and Ionic columns, and they knew what happened to Prussia. They wore sweaters without crumbs embedded in the fibers. They never burped. And yet they’d sought out Sylvia because they’d wanted her approval, not because they’d wanted to truly know her. Let alone love her. Those young women were all so competent, yet their competence was built on the head-pats of supervisors. For all their book knowledge and their museum visits and their semesters in Rome, they were hoop-jumpers. Box-checkers. Résumé-builders. They were so well rounded they had no edges. They were just ethical enough.
And finally, apart from four intertwined stories within the story, there is Allegra Hyde’s beautiful prose. For instance, her description of deep diving in the ocean.
Crossing the threshold between air and ocean means changing universes. Sound elongates, splinters into light. Everywhere: champagne bubbles, the flick of fins and the crackle of plankton, the blood rush of a dive taken too deep. Underwater, one is on borrowed time. The sea is a place a person can only visit in glimpses.
Sunlight filtered through the water, illuminating a silver school of minnows. The fish glittered, parted to reveal the waft of a sea fan, the ribboned bulges of brain coral, and the sculptural fingers of a tube sponge. A starfish feasted on a crab, its stomach distended. More fish—pink, orange, teal—flickered past like living confetti, their celebrations interrupted by a barracuda, many-fanged and slender, as well as jellies dragging their tentacles like a starlet’s endless gown.
Needless to say, Think in the Morning enthusiastically recommends this book for your summertime enjoyment.