The Record Keeper by Agnes Gomillion
I would like to thank Sarah from Titan for an advance copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review
Publisher – Titan
Price - £8.99
Published – Out Now
After World War III, Earth is in ruins, and the final armies have come to a reluctant truce. Everyone must obey the law – in every way- or risk shattering the fragile peace and endangering the entire human race.
Although Arika Cobane is a member of the race whose backbreaking labour provides food for the remnants of humanity, she is destined to become a member of the Kongo elite. After ten gruelling years of training, she is on the threshold of taking her place of privilege far from the fields. But everything changes when a new student arrives. Hosea Khan spews dangerous words of treason: what does peace matter if innocent lives are lost to maintain it?
As Arika is exposed to new beliefs, she realises that the laws she has dedicated herself to uphold are the root of her people’s misery. If Arika is to liberate her people, she must unearth her fierce heart and discover the true meaning of freedom: finding her courage to live – or die – without fear.
In a world where children are being gathered up in warehouses without any real care in the name of security, we often ask how can this be tolerated? Apathy and acceptance of the status quo is a huge factor in this and how exactly is that balance maintained by the state. Often power imbalances are focused on racial lines and those in power can easily control those without. In Agnes Gomillion’s novel we get a look at how slavery and colonialism can control those in power deem inhuman to sobering effect.
The story is in the far future; a global war happened by accident but saw the environment destroyed and most countries vanquished. The three remaining groups the English, the Clayskin and the Kongo settled in a barely habitable path of the UK and came to the Niagara Compromise the three groups would work together to keep each other alive. The Kongo would work in agriculture and to keep control (as not all of the Kongo were deemed suitable for government) there would be Record Keepers. In this story our narrator is Arika a 17 year old girl who ever since she arrived at the school house and to be trained under a brutal headmistress has decided the one option she does have is to put her face towards her books; study as hard as she can and then she could be come a Senator for Kongo and this will offer her a degree of security and protection from the whims of the English government. Arika is aloof from her classmates and often just seen as a rival student but she is clearly in line for the Senate position until a new student arrives known as Hosea. He comes from a more disreputable part of the Kongo and is challenging the teacher’s doctrine yet without much reprisals. Arika feels her position is threatened and investigates further slowly finding out her life and her world isn’t quite what she thought and needs to decide whose side she is really on.
A huge part of the book is Arika’s awakening to the suffering in plain sight around her. We see very early on she was a much more rebellious child but after stepping just once out of line she was brutally attacked then subjected to solitary confinement and starvation at seven years old. Her headmistress Jones puts a huge barrier between her and the rest of the world. Arika is terrified of going back and therefore her only escape is that Senate position and nothing else matters. Hence, she throws herself into learning all the government doctrine she can. Gomillion is using the history of violence and managed education to show how someone can be taught to self-police themselves and accept the history they are taught. Indeed, later on some characters insult Arika calling her English – seen as an appeaser for the true master of the world. In contrast we see in the book various groups who are trying to find out what is going on; secret reading of newspapers; groups that gossip while hair is braided and in particular with the arrival of Hosea that there are those who feel the regime must fall and be replaced with something fairer.
What I found most interesting is this is not a swift conversion for Arika although she is starting to see the impact the English have had on the Kongo she is still for a a large part of the novel unwilling to risk her neck and often seems ready to betray the rebels. It’s a really strong reminder that training people at a young age to accept the false truths they are reading and hearing about can make someone just changing their mind and worldview to accept the actual truth so hard. Often an empire will use the habitants of the country they now rule to control others through just this type of indoctrination. She is not always a sympathetic character, but I do like ho we are shown to understand what got her to this position.
I really liked the slow reveal of the horrors within the world too that explains the immense cruelty of a world that thinks the colour of someone’s skin removes their right to independence and self-determination. This is a world where the need for constant food production beats treating the sick who are not deemed worthy and there is a chilling scene where Arika must tend the ill and as a Record Keeper hear the stories of the dying’s lives. Arika has previously seen these people as workers but now she realises they are human beings and enslaved. It’s a cold world and one really disturbing aspect is the concept of Rebirth – regularly giving the workers a drug that removes memories and over time reduces their ability to think and concentrate. This is a truly horrible world keen to stamp down on the slightest bit of independence. That often we know these events have actually happened throughout history I find one of the starkest parts of the novel.
I think the one issue I have is the pace of the story feels a bit uneven. Nearly half the novel is Arika’s time in the school and her investigation of what Hosea is up to. While I find the narration quietly compelling the story is very relaxed in pace and its very much a discussion of ideas and view in this part. The second half though sees Hosea and Arika on a trip into the wider world and meet some of the rebel bandits in the area. While useful to see Arika develop her fighting spirit the conclusion doesn’t quite pay off these areas and while ends on a appropriate key confrontation for Arika you feel a lot of the story is not yet over and yet the finale also feels a bit too rushed in places (and indeed a sequel is to come). Despite that pacing issue it’s such a fascinating world (that I want to see destroyed!) I found myself uncomfortably immersed trying to see how Arika could change and how the rebellion could win.
The tone of the novel is a mixture of sadness and anger at lost opportunities and the cruelty inflicted on the enslaved population. Its not a tale of joyous uprising but more a slow burning take down of the concept of colonial power and slavery. It reminds me a lot of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death where see a similar awakening in a world where after an apocalypse we still carried the injustices and prejudices if to today forward. This is a very promising debut and I really will be looking forward to seeing if the remainder of the story can match (and even surpass) the goals of this one. I will be watching Agnes Gomillion’s future stories with interest.