Sunday, July 5, 2009

Review of Alyzon Whitestar by Isobelle Carmody

Carmody, Isobelle. Alyzon Whitestarr. Random House, 2009 (c2005).

This fantasy has an excellent premise. What if all animals, including people, emitted all sorts of information, from emotions to basic messages to the nature of their very essences, that humans can no longer sense? Perhaps early in our evolutionary past, these messages were an essential means of communication, but as we developed complex language and society, we gradually lost the ability to “smell” each other.

After bumping her head, teenaged Alyzon falls into a month-long coma. When she comes out of it, she possesses not only the ability to smell the emotions and essences of people and animals, but also a heightened awareness and understanding of the world that most people don’t. She soon realizes that, although some people “smell” better than others, there are some, including a good-looking classmate, who just smell “wrong.” It’s not long before Alyzon and some new, pleasantly-scented friends are involved in a dangerous battle against a sinister disease-like Wrongness that is bent on infecting as many people as possible in order to warp and darken their souls.

Anyone who has stared at a stranger in a crowd who suddenly turns around and stares back as if tapped on the shoulder knows that humans do seem to possess mysterious and primal senses, so the idea of communicating, both consciously and unconsciously, via hormones/pheremones (or “smells”) that we can no longer consciously sense is both intriguing and logical. I would have been perfectly content for Alyzon to explore her new expanded senses for 500 pages, but apparently some kind of plot was needed – hence the Wrongness disease and the nasty constorium of powerful people and thugs needed to spread it. When Alyzon is affected personally, as when her younger sister moves inexorably toward an angrier, darker state of mind, the plot is compelling, but it veers toward quite unbelievable conspiracy-theory weirdness toward the end. After a last-minute dangerous climax, the story is wrapped up so abruptly that I flipped back and forth to make sure I hadn’t missed any pages.

Alyzon’s steady and sensible, if rather na├»ve, personality, her large and unique family, and her steadfast friend Gilly (who smells wonderfully of the sea) are some of the many strong elements of this well-written, thought-provoking fantasy. A weak point is the ridiculous cover, depicting a glamorous, glossy-lipsticked girl who looks nothing like the rather ordinary, drab-haired Alyzon. Gilly dresses her up at one point to attend an event incognito – and thus we get the off-putting, sparkly jacket art.

Highly recommended for grades 8 and up.

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