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The Olive Readers August 23, 2006

Posted by Brian L. Belen in Books, Reviews.
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Not too long ago, a British television channel sponsored a “How to get published” competition for aspiring writers. Hopefuls were asked to send in manuscripts of at least the first chapter of their book and a description of how the story would progress; the best would be awarded a publishing contract with Pan Macmillan. The author that took top honors in that competition was one Christine Aziz, with her winning manuscript (now in print) The Olive Readers.

The story is set in the not-too-distant future where nation-states have been replaced by Corporations as the basic political-economic entity in the world. Massive amounts of people have been uprooted from their native lands to work where they can be most productive (in the manufacture of their corporation’s specific product), and because they have been socialized to accept their situation they are a people without a past. There is no reality except work, and to work is to serve one’s Corporation.

However, within this society there are subversives who fight to preserve what little is left of the past by collecting books long thought lost, which are contraband. These Readers pool their collections in hidden libraries in the heart of each community, and plot to overthrow the powers-that-be in order to acquire their freedom and reclaim their pasts. When a brief war between the powerful Water Company and the backward Olive Company threatens to destroy the lives of Olive farmers, a series of events are set into motion that lead a young girl named Jephzat to learn about the Olive Readers and discover the truth about her past, as the freedom of the world hangs in the balance.

Now, I really tried to like this book. It had a promising (not to mention creative) premise, and at its best it was vaguely reminiscent of George Orwell’s iconic 1984. But that’s about it. What begins as a promising story tends to drag on longer and longer, with the author taking a dig at too many social issues along the way. Totalitarianism and corporate greed are native to the story that Aziz seeks to weave, but in the process she uses the story as a vehicle to lament the excesses of crass materialism and champion the cause of environmentalism, which does not so much advance the plot as muddle it. Also, it is hard to miss the fact that as the story progresses it becomes more science fiction-ish and new age-esque in tone and substance than perhaps necessary. And like others who have also read it, I was extremely disappointed with how the story concluded: after carefully and laboriously building up the plot, the story resolves itself in a very convoluted fashion within a span of twenty or so pages that are bound to elicit a very emphatic “huh?” along the way.

Would I recommend the book? I am divided on this. I can imagine that the book would have an audience, and not just the type of people who sympathize with the causes Aziz brings to the fore. For instance, it’s difficult not to be entranced by her characterization of Jephzat, whom she brings to life so well in the earlier half of the book. But at the same time, if I had the choice now I’m of the mind that I’d look for something else to read. It’s not that the book is bad; it’s just that it should’ve been so much better.

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