Sometimes, you swallow a book down whole, like a cold beer on a hot beach. It’s sharp and immediate and it goes straight to your brain, freezing it and stimulating it at the same time.
Other times, the book swallows you. You open it at the first page and then, some days or weeks later, you find yourself climbing back out of it again, wondering how you got on with other things – eating, working, sleeping, existing – while this book held your head in its mouth and wouldn’t let go.
The Country of Ice Cream Star is one of those latter books. It’s big (such books tend to be big, which is why I like big books) and it’s brave and it’s fearless and it’s extraordinary. It’s set in a future of unspecified distance, where an unspecified outbreak of a half-named disease has wiped out all of white America, leaving only blacks and Hispanics – and killing even them when they approach the age of 20. The whites that are left are called ‘roos’ and are seemingly invaders who are impervious to the disease.
So far, so dystopian. We’ve seen this movie before. But yet, we haven’t. Because this story is narrated by a 15-year-old girl who calls herself Ice Cream Star. She’s a Sengle. We don’t know why her group are called Sengles, or why she’s called Ice Cream Star. She isn’t going to tell us that. She is going to tell us what happens to her, though, and she’s going to use her own language to do it, a new kind of pidgin English which is part street slang and part something else, something fashioned by children who are having to govern themselves in the face of inbuilt and imminent obsolescence. They have no cultural markers, no books to read or songs to quote. They have only their own stories and their own voices.
And Ice Cream Star’s voice is so unique, so powerful, so poetic that the dystopian vision becomes secondary to her own incendiary genius. The journey she takes is long (600 pages long) and extraordinary and at times we flounder in the face of this strange dialect. At other times it takes us over, until Ice Cream Star’s voice is clear in our heads. As a feat of creative control and stamina, it’s nothing less than breathtaking. Holden Caulfield has a powerful voice, and his own hip vernacular, but Holden Caulfield is no Ice Cream Star. If you don’t finish the book more than a little in love with her, there’s something missing from your humanity.
I only know Sandra Newman, the woman who wrote this amazing book, via Twitter. But by God, she was touched by something miraculous when she wrote The Country of Ice Cream Star. It’s the most extraordinary thing I’ve read since, I think, Infinite Jest, and that’s not a bad comparison in some ways. Both books can infuriate. Both books could knock down a horse if thrown at its head. And both books contain gigantic worlds and unforgettable poetry.
If you want a big book to swallow you up, and if you want to meet an extraordinary young woman whom you won’t ever forget, read The Country of Ice Cream Star. Gratty for reading; these words is bone.