Anna North

Hachette/Virago (2011)

ISBN 978-1-84408-696-2

Reviewed by Jason Nahrung

America Pacifica is set in the future when North America faces annihilation from a new ice age. Presumably the rest of the world is also suffering, but the global situation is not of concern here. Rather, the big freeze is the catalyst and the backdrop to the events of the story. It was the freeze that sent boat loads of American environmental refugees, or settlers, led by the domineering Tyson, across the Pacific Ocean to an island. The island has no topography to speak of, but it’s big enough to take a population of around 20,000, though it’s a case of out of the blizzard and into the freezer for the citizens of America Pacifica, who quickly manage to stress their new world with the pollutive ills of the old.

This battle, between adaptation to changing environment against a determination to recreate the existing industrial complex, underpins the social stress that further informs the novel’s setting. America Pacifica is a society of extremes, from the rich elite to the abject poor. Occupying one of the lower rungs is Darcy, a teenage girl, and her mother, Sarah. The pair enjoy a largely self-contained existence in their drab apartment, but the mundane routine of working to eat and pay the rent is thrown into chaos when Sarah fails to come home one night. Darcy must make her way through the strata of her society, seeking clues to Sarah’s whereabouts, the facts of which are buried firmly in life back on the mainland. There is comment along the way about consumerism and hedonism and environmentalism, but the core is a daughter’s quest for the mother she comes to realise she barely knew at all.

This is the debut from Anna North, a New Yorker who grew up in Los Angeles, and she’s gone to pains to flex her prose muscles here. This flirts with purple-shaded descriptions and metaphors that stretch too far, and occasional tracts of introspection that encourage skimming. When she finds her stride, though, it’s a comfortable, enjoyable jog through the fears and ambitions of young Darcy as she navigates the duplicitous and manipulative sub-groups of her society, sprinkled with some raw moments of violence, sex and bodily functions.

Darcy becomes a trigger for events as radical and conservative forces are caught up in her quest. She finds unexpected depths to her character and is a capable protagonist, but one wonders if the tenacity and the sacrifice, the tawdriness and conniving, might not have had more impact if told from a more intimate, first-person point of view. And while Darcy’s journey isn’t easy nor without risk, the join-the-dots detective story doesn’t evoke much tension. Perhaps it’s merely the vague doubts engendered by the world-building that dilutes the story’s impact. It feels more as if someone has towed a portion of Los Angeles out to sea rather than settled an uninhabited atoll. Can such a limited population locked away on an island small enough to require land reclamation really erect and maintain this industrialised a society? Just how far in the future would this have to be set for the global environment to be in this situation? What has happened to the rest of the Americas, let alone the world, for this to be the last, best hope?

Still, the dystopian nature of the tale allows leeway, and this is clearly a society on the brink, so these slight misgivings might be misplaced. Certainly, they are overshadowed by the quest for a lost parent, such a powerful trope, enhanced here with effective descriptions of the fear of aloneness and privation. North does a lovely job of portraying Darcy’s relationship with Sarah through flashbacks, and the author’s sideswipes at the corrupting influence of power are welcome if obvious. This is more a character study than a mystery thriller, and it will reward those who can engage with Darcy’s journey – the final scene is particularly deft.

Pacifica America, due out in Australia in August 2011, is a solid debut, bound to garner its author a following.