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2 books explore being human in a fast-paced world of consumerism

Two challenging books tackle what it means to be human in a world of science, industrialization and consumerism — even though they take place two hundred years apart.

CBC book columnist Joanne Kelly reviews Edward Carey's Heap House and The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell

Two challenging books tackle what it means to be human in a world of science, industrialization and consumerism — even though they take place two hundred years apart.

It is 1875 in Edward Carey's alternate-universe Victorian England. Heap House is the first book in the Iremonger trilogy written for middle years readers.

Carola Dibbell's The Only Ones can be a tough read — both in style and content. But the payoff is more than worth it. We may not fully recognize Inez's world but we can connect so strongly with her fear, desperation and love for her the child she claims as a daughter. (amazon.com)

Generations of Iremongers live in Heap House, surrounded by a heaving sea of discarded objects. They are the guardians of London's consumer waste. Every Iremonger is assigned a "birth object" that defines their lives, and becomes as necessary as food and water for them to survive. For some it's a spoon they can slip in a pocket, for others a birth object is a massive marble mantelpiece that keeps them tied to their bedroom forever.

Clod Iremonger is ostracized because he hears the birth objects calling out names. His bath plug says "James Henry Hayward". His aunt's door handle repeats "Alice Higgs". Holding onto your identity is at the core of this mystery and adventure story.

Clod befriends Lucy Pennant, an orphan servant. Iremonger servants are fed a sort of drug to fog their memories and erase their personal stories. Lucy is determined not to forget where she comes from and what makes her who she is.

Lucy and Clod join forces to get the bottom of his family's deep dark secret and their bond with the ever-growing piles of objects growing outside their home. The heaps of detritus take on a life of their own in this world, much like the wild moors of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

Heap House has a very Gothic sensibility, both in tone and in content. The book has elements of horror, romance and — spoiler alert — people do die. Carey has set his book in a time of industrial growth and prolific waste and he captures what the obsession with possessions does to us as people.

This is a book that will challenge young readers but once they are hooked they will need to know what happens after the intense cliffhanger ending. Carola Dibbell also takes on issues of identity and what factors make us who we are in her exploration of the ethics of cloning in The Only Ones.

Inez Fardo is 19 years old and seemingly immune to the many viruses wiping the planet clean. Dibbell has created one of the most powerful and compelling narrative voices I have read in years. Dibbell does not do a lot of world building and drops her reader into Inez's tough and traumatic life in a decimated New York.

That can be confusing and fascinating at the same time. One of the many strengths of this novel is hearing the growth in Inez's narration as her world — and her consciousness — expands.

She is uneducated, used and abused, but has a powerful sense of curiosity and a desire to engage. In her simple way, she tries to explain why she would go through the ethically dubious cloning process: "…In the basement they have a cot. They have a window you could see out of if you stood on a chair. Which I did. Well what is it? It is a cow. I had seen pictures of a cow. This cow just goes walking by, with a bell. And here is what I mean, you never know what will happen. I had done this before. Shots, pills, puff up, all of it. I never saw a cow though."

Inez ends up cloning her cells for a wealthy, grieving mother whose four children died. An underground group, hiding from religious zealots, clones five babies in tanks. One survives. The mother who paid for the cloning backs out, leaving a wholly unprepared Inez to raise the child.

Inez isn't Ani's mother. Her "daughter" is her replica. But Inez becomes a mother as she sacrifices everything to keep little Ani alive. Inez's biggest concern is making sure Ani — a genetic copy — does not become like her. She wants Ani to have a better life and BE a different person. Dibbell nails a universal truth among parents, clone or not.

The book can be a tough read — both in style and content. But the payoff is more than worth it. We may not fully recognize Inez's world but we can connect so strongly with her fear, desperation and love for her the child she claims as a daughter.

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